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Texas conservationists warn of dwindling mountain lion numbers, saying new protections are needed

Advocates say new rules on trapping and hunting the wild cats, along with more thorough research, are urgently needed for the animals to “remain tenable” in Texas.

By Travis Bubenik

A Texas-based advocacy group urged state officials this week to consider new protections for mountain lions, arguing that the animals’ populations have dropped to dangerously low levels that put their future at risk.

The group Texans for Mountain Lions filed a petition Monday asking the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to consider a variety of proposals that would move the state toward managing the animals more like deer, antelope or other “game animals.”

While experts warn that such actions are urgently needed, they say it may already be too late to fully recover the animal’s populations in some parts of the state, namely in South Texas.

“We might already be there,” said Mark Elbroch, a member of the Texas coalition who also leads research and advocacy work related to mountain lions for the international non-profit Panthera.

“There have been surveys in South Texas just over the last few years, and they’re turning up very few pictures of mountain lions at all,” he said. “We really have no idea if it’s already too late for the South [Texas] population to continue on its own.”

Once common across Texas and the U.S., mountain lions these days are mostly found in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas and in South Texas.

Conservationists are more concerned about the animal’s numbers in the latter region, Elbroch said, in part because populations there are “isolated” from their peers in West Texas.

“It’s like an island, and the number of mountain lions on that island are just dropping, dropping, dropping without anyone really noticing,” he said.

That’s in part why Elbroch’s group is now pushing for at least a temporary limit on how many mountain lions can be killed in South Texas, among other new regulations.

Currently, Texas has few rules on mountain lion hunting or trapping. The wild cats are considered a “nongame” species - along with animals like armadillos, porcupines and rabbits - and Texans are generally allowed to hunt them at any time of year.

The state parks and wildlife department asks for reports when mountain lions are killed, but doesn’t require it.

“Without that data on how many cats are being killed, where they’re being killed, it’s hard to understand the population at all,” Elroch said.

Still, Elroch and others say the available research points to a steady decline in Texas mountain lion numbers in recent years.

In a May 2022 paper entitled It's time to manage mountain lions in Texas, Elroch and Alpine-based ecologist Patricia Harveson reviewed historical research into mountain lion numbers, which the two argue suggests that the animal’s South Texas population is in “immediate risk of extinction.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said it has received and “will carefully consider” the group’s petition.

“As required by department policy, our staff are reviewing the petition and will prepare their recommendations for our commissioners, who will make the final decision on what actions, if any, to take,” said department spokesperson Cory Chandler.

Among the new rules the advocacy group wants the state to consider is prohibiting more than five mountain lions from being killed per year in South Texas, “until [the parks department] can determine the size and status of the population in this area and a stakeholder advisory group can establish sustainable hunting limits for the region.” The group is also pushing for a statewide ban on killing mountain lions “that have been restricted from movement during a hunt or prior to a hunt,” or what some call “canned hunting.”

Such proposals could face pushback from ranchers and other landowners who may view mountain lions more as pests than wildlife worthy of protecting.

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a powerful trade association, considers mountain lions a “predatory” species and generally opposes proposals that would limit ranchers’ abilities to kill such species.

When asked about the advocacy group’s petition filed this week, a spokesperson for TSCRA pointed Marfa Public Radio to policy position language the association has adopted on the matter.

“Despite the efforts of livestock producers to reduce damage caused by predators, livestock producers continue to suffer significant economic losses each year to livestock and private property as a result of predators,” the language reads. “TSCRA oppose [sic] predator hunting seasons, take limits, permit requirements, or any predator management limitations that would impede food and/or fiber producers from protecting their livestock, wildlife, family, guests, and employees from predators.”

The mountain lion advocates pushing for change include Ben Masters, a documentary filmmaker behind the recently released Texas wildlife film “Deep in the Heart.”

In an interview, Masters acknowledged that the group’s proposals could prove controversial in some circles, but said the new state-level rules could help stave off the potential for much more sweeping regulations in the future.

“The absolute worst thing that could happen in Texas is for that population in South Texas to decline so far that the federal government decided to get involved,” he said.

Masters, who comes from a ranching background himself, said while cattle ranchers tend to be less concerned about mountain lions as predators, the proposals could get more pushback from sheep and goat ranchers and those involved in the state’s multi-billion dollar hunting industry.

“You know, mountain lions also kill mule deer, they kill desert bighorn sheep,” he said. “That’s an important part of the West Texas economy.”

Still, Masters said that reality has guided the coalition’s framework for the new proposals. The group has insisted that mountain lions can be better protected in a way that respects “the ranching and hunting heritage that is the foundation for wildlife conservation in Texas.”

“We’ve gotten consultation from landowners, from hunters, from ranchers, and have tried to put together some steps that people can get behind and not make this a really polarizing issue,” Masters said. “I think the cat would lose if it became super polarized.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.