Mountain lion sightings: What you should know
Cougars pass through Oklahoma on a regular basis but have yet to reclaim a territory
By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF
Oklahoma had its fourth confirmed mountain lion sighting of the year on Oct. 20 its fifth may come within a few days.
In 2020 Okies saw seven mountain lions—or cougars, catamounts, puma, painters, or panthers—pick your moniker.
Sightings are rare enough that social media loves them, and news outlets pick up on them, too.
Take note of these things to know about mountain lions in Oklahoma:
A site monitor last week noticed a photo of a large track shared to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife’s Facebook page and alerted department furbearer biologist Jerrod Davis.
“It looked like a cat track so we got his contact information and set up a time and place to go look at them,” Davis said.
Biologists found a stretch of 40 to 50 tracks in a wide sandy area and confirmed they were from a mountain lion, he said.
This was a long cat with a stride 53 inches long, he said. Each track measured 4 inches wide with a heel pad 3 inches wide. The average step length hit 24 to 25 inches. The measurements indicate the cat likely was a male. A “general rule of thumb” is that female strides measure 40 inches or less, he said.
“It had a long gait, he said. “It could be a long lanky young male or a bigger cat, the tracks don’t really give us an idea just how big it was,” he said.
This confirmation marked Pittsburgh County’s first and the 44th statewide since officials started keeping records in 2002, Davis said.
On Oct. 23, Justin Holt of Major County shared a trail camera video of a mountain lion’s encounter with a porcupine via Facebook with Tess Maune of Channel 6 News, Tulsa. Maune reports the Wildlife Department is aware and plans to investigate that sighting.
They’ve been around a long time
The cats inhabit areas from the Canadian Yukon to the Strait of Magellan. They inhabit the largest geographic range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Oklahomans like to tell tales about the Wildlife Department transplanting cougars to start a population here. Department officials deny the tales and say no biological reasons exist for stocking them.
Do mountain lions live here?
The accurate short answer is “yes, sometimes,” according to the Wildlife Department.
Most confirmed sightings in the past two decades are transient males that call the state home for a short time. Most are younger males, likely kicked out of their range by a larger male. They roam to look for a female and establish a territory of their own, Davis said.
“They just keep going,” he said. “They’re programmed so their main goal is to procreate and to feed themselves.”
Without a female, called a queen or a she-puma, there is no reason for a male to stay, Davis said. A pair could establish a territory here, however.
“We keep waiting and investigating sightings,” he said.
Mountain lions are wide-ranging animals that used to roam the plains from Canada to Mexico. Females have a home range of 50 to 75 square miles. Male territories might cover 100 square miles or more. GPS-collar results reveal males may roam hundreds of miles across several states, Davis said.
Texas and New Mexico, Colorado, South Dakota, and Wyoming are the nearest states with established populations. DNA results from cats killed in Oklahoma have traced them to Colorado and South Dakota.
Four of the state’s 44 sightings were females. None were reproductively active, Davis said.
Hundreds of mountain lion reports come in and department officials investigate dozens of the most promising ones each year. All reports are taken seriously, even if they turn out to be bobcats, coyotes, dogs, or even house cats, he said.
Davis and the Outdoor Oklahoma crew produced a YouTube video to help people with identification tips.
More than 50 reports hit Davis’s desk after last week’s sighting. They ranged from recent sightings to reports from years ago, he said.
“A lot were from people who said they didn’t know they could report a sighting and they just wanted to say they saw one,” he said.
Should I shoot it?
Mountain lions are a protected nongame species in Oklahoma but citizens can protect themselves and their property. Regulations state they can be taken year-round “when committing or about to commit depredation on any domesticated animal or when deemed an immediate safety hazard.”
A game warden or department employee must be immediately contacted and the animal will be examined.
Do they present a danger?
Mountain lions are mostly crepuscular (active around sunset/sunrise) like their main prey species, the white-tailed deer. Cats opportunistically take livestock, but Oklahoma’s deer are plentiful.
Cougars are reclusive and generally want nothing to do with humans, part of the reason confirmed reports are relatively rare.
“In a lot of places there are a lot more people and a lot more mountain lions, and attacks are rare even in those places,” Davis said. “They don’t look at us and see a prey species.”
How to make a report
The Wildlife Department website at wildlifedepartment.com offers information about mountain lions, identifying the animals and their tracks, and offers a link to a form to report what you’ve seen. Some also contact the department via phone at 405-521-3851, or via Facebook posts, but the reporting form is the most direct and efficient method to reach biologists who will investigate your sighting.
Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.