With a well-placed camera and a little luck, Texas wildlife officials captured video of some rarely seen predators roaming past a West Texas property under the cover of darkness.
In the brief video, shared last week by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, a mother mountain lion can be seen skirting by an electric fence with her three small cubs in tow, around 5:20 a.m.
With their mother leading the way, the video shows one cub quickly running to catch up, while the second takes a more leisurely pace. The third is heard before it’s seen, sneaking up behind the trail camera and scratching with claws or teeth before bounding over it and continuing on.
Where are they going? What are they doing? It’s impossible to say for certain, Rachael Connally, a TPWD biologist in the Trans-Pecos region, told McClatchy News.
“The mountain lions just happened to pass by [the property]. We do not believe that they were attracted there for any reason,” Connally said, adding that TPWD put up the electrified fence as part of an effort to deter black bears from deer feeders.
The mountain lion cubs, which she estimates are between 4 and 6 months old, are too young to hunt with their mother, Connally said, but she may be leading them to water, or to prey she’s already taken down.
“It is likely [the mountain lions] were simply traveling on established wildlife trails used by all sorts of critters in the area,” she said.
‘Reclusive and secretive’
Mountain lions, cougars, pumas — whatever you want to call them — have a way of keeping experts guessing.
“Mountain lions are very reclusive and secretive animals, so seeing one would make you incredibly lucky,” Connally said.
Over the last year, there have been 30 confirmed sightings across Texas, and nowhere more frequent than the Trans-Pecos region. In the same period, TPWD reports three confirmed sightings in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, one sighting north of Amarillo, and several throughout central and south Texas, all the way down to Brownsville.
Still, sightings are so few and far between, it’s difficult to say just how many of the big cats have made Texas, or the Trans-Pecos region, their home.
“Far West Texas is known for vast, open spaces and sparse human populations. So, it is possible that there are more mountain lions out here than in other parts of the state,” Connally told McClatchy. “Because mountain lions maintain large home ranges, some cats may move freely across the Texas-Mexico border frequently.”
See something, say something
Prior to European settlement, experts say mountain lion populations lived across the entire state, but their numbers dwindled due to hunting and habitat loss, and by 1960 they had little livable territory left besides the mountainous geography of West Texas.
While the population in the Trans-Pecos is stable, survival is a struggle even for these powerful predators. It isn’t known how many cubs make it to adulthood, Connally said, “but we do know that cubs and subadults are at higher risk of mortality.”
Mountain lions generally give birth to litters of two or three cubs every two years, according to TPWD. They aren’t considered adults until they’re around 2 years old.
Young cubs, like those in the trail cam video, are highly dependent on their mothers for survival, Connally said. If she dies, they’ll likely follow.
People, drought and competition from other mountain lions all pose potential threats, according to Connally.
“Mountain lions are not protected as game animals in Texas, so there are no season or bag limits on harvest of the species. They may be hunted or trapped year-round,” Connally said.
“Prey is scarce in years of drought and lions who find themselves in areas lacking prey may not survive. Additionally, a young lion trying to find its own territory may encroach upon the territory of a larger, stronger lion and find themselves in a nasty fight.”
Sightings are one of the few means experts have of estimating mountain lion populations.
“It is incredibly rare to see a mountain lion and … it’s important for anyone who believes they have seen a mountain lion to contact their local TPWD biologist or a Game Warden,” Connally said.
To find out who your local TPWD biologist is, follow this link.