Explaining the mystery about mountain lions in Oklahoma
State wildlife officials verified more sightings of mountain lions in Oklahoma in 2020 than any other year since the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation started keeping such data in 2002.
Seven sightings in Oklahoma last year of mountain lions — also commonly known as pumas, panthers and cougars — were determined to be true. Osage County had three confirmed sightings, Pushmataha had two, and Cimarron and Pawnee counties each had one. In 2019, there were five confirmed sightings by state wildlife officials, tying the previous high in 2011.
In each of those instances over the past two years, state wildlife officials were able to verify that it was indeed a mountain lion caught on someone's trail camera or had left tracks in an area. There have been 40 confirmed mountain lion sightings since 2002 in the state, according to the Wildlife Department. Osage County leads the list with seven, followed by Cimarron County with six.
Over the years, there even have been a few mountain lions documented in central Oklahoma. Two were confirmed in Logan County (2014 and 2015), and one each in McClain (2002), Grady (2011) and Pottawatomie (2015) counties.
Jerrod Davis, the Wildlife Department's furbearing biologist and mountain lion coordinator, attributes the slight increase in confirmations last year to the pandemic — people having more time to spend outdoors and the growing use of trail cameras by landowners.
That was just part of the information Davis, who has never seen a mountain lion himself in the wild, provided about the big cats during a live "Ask A Biologist" session on Instagram last week, part of the Wildlife Department's growing push to connect to sportsmen and sportswomen through social media.
There always has been a lot of mystery surrounding mountain lions in Oklahoma. They have been the topic of many campfire stories and coffee shop talk around the state. Over the years, there have been many reported sightings but with little proof other than the eyewitness testimony.
There are conspiracy theorists who believe the Wildlife Department releases mountain lions into the wild to control the deer population. And there are others who have claimed to have seen black panthers prowling in the state.
There is no hunting season for mountain lions in Oklahoma, but since 2007 it has been legal to shoot the animal if a person feels threatened or is protecting livestock or pets. The law requires the carcass to be examined by a Wildlife Department employee, such as a game warden or biologist, but no Oklahoman has ever brought a dead mountain lion to the agency under those circumstances.
Davis answered the following questions about mountain lions in Oklahoma during his "Ask A Biologist" segment:
What is the population of mountain lions in Oklahoma?
Davis: It's always in a state of flux. In certain areas we know that there are home ranges that extend into Oklahoma from other states. But as far as we can tell, those don't extend very far into the Panhandle area and some of the northern reaches of Oklahoma. What we do know is we have transient mountain lions in Oklahoma. What a transient animal is is an individual that doesn't have an established territory or home range yet. We know from some of the samples we have been able to collect from mountain lion carcasses we found over the last two decades, they're from Colorado, they are from South Dakota, from Nebraska. They are traveling quite a long ways trying to find an area that is suitable for them to set up a home range.
Do they travel alone?
They are completely solitary. The only time the males and females will get together is when mating, and then the females will keep their young by them for upwards of two years, maybe.
Does the number of confirmed sightings last year mean there is an established population of mountain lions in the state?
They are not a viable local population. We haven't recorded or had any evidence of sexually reproductive females or cubs in Oklahoma. We can't really say that we have a reproductive established population here in Oklahoma.
What is their effect on the deer population in Oklahoma?
In Oklahoma, with the high density of deer that we have, there is no negative impact on the deer population.
What do I do if I see one in the wild?
If you can avoid conflict or confrontation, do avoid it. Don't try and get close to it. Don't try and take that magic picture. If you can avoid confrontation, avoid it. If confrontation is unavoidable, don't run, don't turn your back. They are a predator. if something runs, they have an innate reaction to chase. So, what you want to do is you want to make yourself look as big as you possibly can and back away slowly.
If you can, find a stick or rocks or something to throw, but be loud, be big. Make it seem like you're competition and not prey. They don't look at us and see prey instantly anyway, because we are not in their natural prey profile. … They wouldn't look at us and go, that's dinner. They don't look at us like they look at a white-tailed deer. They automatically know that's prey, that is a something I need to chase.
How does the Wildlife Department confirm a mountain lion sighting?
There has to be a credible report, and that can be a trail cam photo, trail cam video. We've even had a couple of door bell cameras that have caught some video which has been kind of neat. But we will also use tracks or scat collections and do some analysis with that to confirm. Any of those things we will use to confirm a sighting.
Is it true there is a population of mountain lions that travel between the Wichita and Arbuckle mountains?
South-central Oklahoma is one of those areas where we haven't really confirmed any mountain lions. Johnston County has a confirmation, but we don't have any in Love County or Stephens County.
Are there black panthers in Oklahoma?
It's not impossible for somebody to see a large black cat in Oklahoma. What is impossible, or has not been documented in any setting in any region of North America, is a black mountain lion. There are black jaguars. There are black leopards. These are brought into exotic animal parks, exotic animal zoos. So, it is not impossible for somebody to see a large black cat in Oklahoma, but there has never been a documented case of a black mountain lion anywhere in North America ever.
Has a mountain lion ever attacked a person in Oklahoma?
In states that have much higher mountain lion populations and a much larger or a much higher density of humans, there are very rarely attacks and even more rarely are there fatalities. In the history of Oklahoma, I don't know any (record of) a mountain lion attack. I am sure that there probably were in the settlement days.