Mountain Lions in the Brazos Valley? Some East Texas cases go unreported
A mountain lion with an insatiable appetite for ducks, geese and chickens appears to be roaming ‘The Land of Milk and Honey,’ despite the fact there has been no confirmed cases of mountain lions in the Brazos Valley in decades. In September, a Grimes County family found itself in an unwanted relationship with the big cat, shooting at it at close range on two separate occasions as it was inside a chicken coop located on their 40-acre property, five miles southeast of Iola.
Really, you ask, a mountain lion in the Brazos Valley? What kind of mushrooms are these people eating?
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Biologist Billy Lambert, who is skeptical of mountain lion claims in his region, has good reason to doubt. During his time in the Brazos Valley, lion claims have sometimes bordered on the comical. Like the time a Milam County land owner called to say he shot a mountain lion on his property and dragged it to his porch. When a biologist arrived to inspect the cougar, he had to inform the man he had shot a 20 pound bobcat. And there was the time when a man called to say someone had hit a lion on the highway. It turned out to be the road kill of a raccoon.
Sightings and confirmations, it seems, are entirely two different things.
In East Texas, it’s clear that mountain lion confirmations are on the rise. And Basecamp Texas has learned of two recent cases that have never been made public by TPWD.
We know that a mountain lion walked in front of a game camera in Panola County in far East Texas two years ago. What you don’t know is that another photo of a mountain lion was taken a year later, also in Panola County, but at a different ranch. TPWD District Biologist Gary Calkins says it’s impossible to know if it’s the same cat. That landowner, he says, prefers not to make the trail cam picture public. And in another case which has also never been reported, a lion was captured on three game cameras last year in Newton County on a hunting lease owned by a timber company.
Why would officials not release that information?
“First of all, when we get proof of a cat, we are held by a confidentiality agreement with the landowner,” Calkins says. “We do not want people overreacting to the news. Mountain lions are a part of our landscape, and some people have a tendency to think that all cats must be killed. That is not something we want.” He adds that the department does not contact the media when a sighting is confirmed.
Twenty years before these recent cases, there was a flurry of media attention after three lions were killed in East Texas in the 1990’s, including one in Newton County, in 1991. It was big news because it was assumed mountain lions were snuffed out of the woods of East Texas around the turn of the century.
Assuming the confirmed cases of cats in East Texas are not released pets (which has happened before), it means they may have traveled from other more populated regions. They were able to move undetected, by-passing all of the cities and towns in-between, dodging traffic and avoiding game cameras which are now scattered throughout most all hunting property in the state. If they made it to East Texas, it seems logical to assume that they would travel through the Brazos Valley, right?
Frankly, how one lion made its way to Grimes County was of little concern to the Iola area family, that prefers to stay anonymous.
In September, their chicken coop came alive with the panicked squawking and clucking of what was left of their bird collection. With rifle in hand, the husband bolted out of his home and, thanks to an always burning light bulb atop the cage, spotted the cat inside the enclosure. A total of four shots were fired as the cat, which easily leapt to the top of the 6-foot enclosure, and with one bound, was off the cage and out of sight and into the darkness.
Now they knew what was stealing and killing more than 30 of their birds over the course of the last month, one by one.
A few nights later, the father spots the cat inside the pen. Trying to get a clear picture of it in his scope, he takes four shots, also with a .22 rifle. Again, the cat is gone in a flash. No blood, no dead mountain lion.
He knows what he saw. After all, he’s seen mountain lions in Grimes County before. He even claims to have killed a black panther that was attacking one of his horses 12 years ago . No photos, no fanfare. “I just wanted it gone,” he said.
Had he taken a picture or saved the hide, it would have been evidence that contradicts wildlife biologists who say black panthers in Texas are akin to Bigfoot. (And that’s a different story, but black panther sightings are persistent in Texas, especially in East Texas, despite the fact that no one can prove they exist. Biologists say they have no explanation why there are so many black panther sightings.)
In Brazos County, there appears to be only one confirmed mountain lion sighting in fairly recent history. It happened, Biologist Lambert thinks, in the 1950’s when someone killed a cat. Even in that case, he says, there’s some doubt surrounding the story.
“It’s a popular belief that mountain lions exist in the Brazos Valley,” Lambert says, “especially considering the large number of sightings reported annually. There is no evidence [verified tracks, kills, roadkills, game camera photos] that a population of mountain lions exist here, or even an individual for that matter. Mountain lions do reside in Texas and they have extremely large home ranges. While it would not completely surprise me to see a cat venture east from the populations that exist in South and West Texas, there is not a mountain lion behind every tree as the number of sightings would suggest.”
So, how often do people claim they’ve seen a lion in the Brazos Valley?
Game Warden Jake Cawthon says he gets a call almost every month about a suspected sighting in his area. “I’ve never seen real proof, but I talk to residents all the time who say they saw one. Do I think they’re here? Without a doubt,” he says, admitting that he has a fascination with mountain lions. “They are truly remarkable creatures. Every part of its anatomy is designed for hunting.”
As for the chicken-coop lion, it appears to have outsmarted the Grimes County family so far, avoiding a recently placed game camera and hog trap baited with chicken meat.
“I’ve never seen a mountain lion in person, so I don’t have much to compare it to,” the wife admits. “But the long flowing tail is what sticks out in my mind. Obviously, this all happened real fast, and if it’s not a mountain lion, I sure would like to know what it is.”
If it was a lion and it’s eventually killed, chances are good that some would oppose the taking of such a superb animal.
Remember the lions killed in East Texas in 1991? Houston Chronicle Outdoor Writer Shannon Tompkins wrote this 21 years ago in his piece, Cougars Return to East Texas:
“Cougars are perhaps the most magnificent four-legged predator to pad this land. Cougars are hunters, brothers and sisters to those of us human omnivores who pursue other animals. But there’s a difference. We humans have the privilege of hunting. For cougars, it’s their right. And it’s their right to live where they can. Any place they exist is richer for their presence. They should be treasured, not tormented.”
Most deer hunters have thought about what they would do if faced with a chance encounter with a mountain lion. Some, I assume, would be awestruck by the presence of the creature and would not pull the trigger even if they wanted to. Most others, I suspect, would not give it a second thought.
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