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In the Davis Mountains, discovering what’s on a mountain lion’s menu

Ben Masters
Fin & Fur Films
A mountain lion pictured in the Davis Mountains of Far West Texas.

Mountain lions are creatures of totemic power, wreathed in legend and lore. That makes sense — they’re the West’s most elusive predator, and their mystery inspires the imagination. But lions are more than a myth in Far West Texas. They’re a living reality.

In 2023, scientists with Alpine’s Borderlands Research Institute published a study on mountain lions in the Davis Mountains. Focused on the lions’ diet, it’s a rare look into the secretive lives of these “ghost cats.”

Dr. Amanda Dutt is a scientist with the Borderlands Research Institute.

“Those claws are no joke, by any means,” Dutt said. “But I'd say their biggest weapon is probably those quite serious canines.”

Dutt knows from claws and teeth. She’s the BRI’s carnivore specialist, and she analyzed the data from the multi-year lion study.

Using hounds and leghold traps, BRI researchers captured and placed GPS collars on 16 lions.

Mountain lions are ambush hunters. They stalk their prey, and then pounce from the ground or a tree above. A lion typically crushes its victim’s skull or windpipe with its powerful jaws.

Then it might spend several days with a carcass, dining at leisure. When GPS data revealed a lingering lion, researchers leapt into action. They traveled to the “kill site,” to document the lion’s prey and, if possible, its age and sex.

“It's a fine balance,” Dutt said, “to make sure that we're getting there fast enough that the carcass hasn't totally decayed or been picked apart by scavengers, but not so quick that we potentially bump the animal off of its kill. It is very possible that our biologists were being watched by the cat who made that kill. But we tried to keep our investigations to as short of a timeframe as possible.”

The team documented 200 lion kills. The top prey items, they learned, are deer. Given that lions once competed with jaguars, wolves and grizzly bears, this focus on mid-sized prey makes sense.

“They are a deer specialist,” Dutt said. “They are a large felid, especially for North America, but in the greater context of other predators that they co-evolved with in North America, they're not the largest or the baddest, so they really seem to specialize in deer across most of their geographic range.”

Lions do their most intensive deer hunting during the rut or breeding season, when deer are depleted from mating. Young elk are also an important food source.

Mother lions have multiple mouths to feed, which means they often target larger prey.

“She has to make significantly more and bigger kills to be worth it,” Dutt said. “So I think the males could kind of take what they could get, whereas the females had to be a bit more picky with their energy.”

A carcass attracts opportunists. At several sites, lions had eaten smaller carnivores — coyotes, foxes, skunks, bobcats — that had made the mistake of trying to scavenge the big cat’s kill.

Feral hogs aren’t on the menu. But one lion developed a taste for another invasive species — the aoudad.

“She figured out how to successfully take down aoudad in some of that steeper, crazy, cliff-face sort of habitat that those species prefer,” Dutt said. “They all can kind of find their preferences. I prefer Asian food to Mexican food – so it's that sort of thing.”

This specialization can create problems — when a lion gets a taste for livestock. But while the Davis Mountains lions coexist with cattle and horses, there was not a single livestock kill in the study.

A West Texan can spend a lifetime in the outdoors without seeing a mountain lion. But the BRI’s study offers us a glimpse into the lives of these enigmatic creatures.

Last month, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission for the first time imposed restrictions on hunting and trapping mountain lions.

Lions are protected in some states, but Texas ranching organizations opposed the new restrictions. While the BRI study suggests cattle are not important prey items for lions, ranchers do describe them as a threat to smaller livestock, like sheep and goats.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.
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