Most reports of mountain lion sightings in Texas are never verified with physical evidence, although such reports can arouse fear and cause a local publicity stir, according to wildlife experts with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In one incident this spring, TPWD’s John Davis pulled up a photograph on his computer that someone had taken in a neighborhood north of Austin showing an animal’s tail barely visible behind a cedar tree.
The man who sent the grainy mobile phone photo said the animal was a large cat, prompting some people to speculate it was the latest in a rash of supposed mountain lion sightings in urban areas. Closer inspection proved otherwise.
Davis, TPWD conservation outreach coordinator and a former urban wildlife biologist, examined the size of a prickly-pear pad next to the cat in the photograph and used it as a scale to measure the animal’s size. “That’s a feral cat, maybe about 18 inches tall,” he said. “It’s not a mountain lion.” Also this spring, TPWD Game Warden Arlen “Turk” Jones handled a report of another supposed mountain lion sighting.
Jones said a woman reported a mountain lion chased her as she rode away on a bicycle in a semi-rural area near Austin. Jones’ investigation revealed the animal in question was not a lion, but was instead a Great Pyrenees dog that the property owner kept to guard goats.
John Young, a TPWD mammalogist who keeps the state’s mountain lion sightings database, said the department receives between 400 and 1,000 reports of mountain lion sightings each year. However, less than one percent of the reports are verified by physical evidence such as tracks, scat, photographs or a mountain lion carcass.
Young said even photographs can be deceiving both with regard to the animal in the picture and the location the photograph was taken. He said he has received the same photograph that was reported to have been taken in two different towns of what the sender claimed was a mountain lion, but in fact appeared to be a large house cat.
This lack of conclusive evidence indicates that true mountain lion sightings in urban and residential areas are rare, but they are still possible. Young said mountain lions have occasionally been spotted in areas adjacent to cities where the land is less developed and undisturbed with roads. These can occur along river or stream corridors or greenbelts or other areas with plentiful white-tailed deer, the preferred prey for mountain lions. Nonetheless, mountain lion encounters are unlikely around urban areas, such as Austin.
“We’re completely surrounded by urban and residential areas,” Young said. “There aren’t long blocks of contiguous habitat suitable for mountain lions. The likelihood of seeing one is extremely rare.”
Residents have reported mountain lion sightings in each of the state’s 254 counties, but researchers have only recorded mountain lion mortalities in 67 Texas counties. Mortalities — confirmed mountain lion carcasses — are the most accurate reflection of where mountain lions exist.
A TPWD report indicates that as recently as 2005 no mountain lion mortalities have occurred in Travis County. Burnet County is the only adjacent county in which a mountain lion mortality has been confirmed.
Mountain lions’ range in Texas is primarily in the west, south and central regions with a core population in and around Big Bend National Park and on private land in South Texas. Mountain lion attacks on humans are equally rare. Only three attacks on humans in Texas have been reported since 1980, all in remote areas of West Texas.
Likewise, from 1890 to 2001, only 98 mountain lion attacks were reported across the United States and Canada and of those only 17 were fatal. Conversely, each year about 20 people die from injuries sustained during dog attacks, and more than 200,000 individuals receive injuries from dogs that are severe enough to require sutures.
Young said most supposed mountain lion sightings last less than 10 seconds. In that short span of time, it is easy to mistake another animal for a mountain lion, especially based on the color, which for mountain lions — and many animals — ranges from a tan yellow to a creamy brown.
“You can convince yourself very rapidly that (a mountain lion) is what you’ve seen,” Young said. “People really want to see them.”
Young said in the event of a supposed mountain lion sighting, residents should question what they believe they saw before concluding that the animal was in fact a mountain lion.
Davis attributes the high number of false mountain lion sightings to fear. “I’ve seen fear be at the root of every one of these problems,” he said. “People get excited when they see an animal they don’t expect to see.” Davis said a lack of exposure to wildlife also factors into peoples’ confusion and misguided fear of certain animals.
“A lack of familiarity breeds fear. A rancher would never call a fox a mountain lion, but for someone who hasn’t seen a fox or a mountain lion the two can look the same,” he said, citing another incident in which a caller mistook a fox perched on her privacy fence for a mountain lion.
Young said people can familiarize themselves with mountain lions by looking at pictures of them on the Internet and in magazines. They can also visit the Internet and learn how to distinguish mountain lion tracks from those of other animals.
Davis said even looking at two-dimensional photographs can sometimes cause confusion when an observer thinks he or she has seen a mountain lion because the photographs do not demonstrate the animal’s size. He suggested that people visit a zoo to see live mountain lions to familiarize themselves with the size.