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Mountain Lion Research

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Fact or Fiction?

The mountain lion is one of Oklahoma's most elusive and discussed wildlife species. “Do we have mountain lions here or not?” The short answer is yes, sometimes. But we have far fewer than rumors would lead you to believe.

Once there were lions

Although mountain lions, sometimes called cougars, pumas, panthers, painters, or catamounts, were common in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the Plains prior to European settlement, they were eradicated during the 19th century. As the countryside was settled and developed, the large predators were shot. People also killed almost all of the deer, the mountain lions’ primary food source.

Sightings and evidence of cougars have been documented back to 1852, where two cougars were killed in southwest Oklahoma. Accounts continued into 1953 when an Oklahoma State University mammalogist documented tracks of a mountain lion southeast of Canton Lake in northwest Oklahoma. Further reports continued into September of 1984, where the refuge manager observed a mountain lion on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

In 1957, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation listed the mountain lion as a game species with a closed season. One thing is certain, despite many rumors and claims to the contrary. ODWC has never stocked, relocated or released any mountain lions in the state of Oklahoma. Furthermore the agency has no plans to do so.
Because mountain lions are reclusive animals, it's hard to know exactly when and where they are present. As compelling as a reported sighting may be, we must gather hard evidence before we can say, “yes, we have a confirmed mountain lion sighting.”

Each year the Wildlife Department investigates dozens of these reports. Although hundreds of recorded sightings have been reported, less than 30 have yielded enough physical evidence to clearly confirm the presence of a mountain lion.

Many Cases of Mistaken Identity

What about the hundreds of others? Some turned out to be different animals. Dog tracks and dogs themselves are the number one and number two cases of misidentification. Bobcats and house cats--along with coyotes, foxes, deer and even rabbits--have also been mistaken for mountain lions. With some sightings, there just isn’t enough physical evidence (hair, scat, tracks, photos, etc.) to confirm or deny a mountain lion was there.

Tracking Their Status

Missing from Oklahoma is the physical evidence that is left by a viable, breeding population of mountain lions. In the areas of every documented population in the U.S., biologists are able to locate numerous tracks, prey kills, scrapes (made when lions scent-mark their territories), and photos, which are often available from the many motion-detecting game cameras that hunters use to monitor trails. Also, frequent mountain lion road-kills turn up, of all ages and of both sexes.

Biologists in Arkansas and Missouri have reached the same conclusion as we have after years of searching: They have documented wandering individuals, but no evidence yet of viable populations. The nearest populations are in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Has there been a confirmed sighting of mountain lions in Oklahoma?

Is that what I think it is?

The mountain lion can be identified by several distinguishing characteristics. Its tail is more than half the length of the body, it has black tips on the tail and ears, and is primarily tan in color. The size of these animals varies by sex. Males average seven feet long (from nose to the tip of its tail) and weigh around 140 pounds, while females average six feet in length with a body weight around 95 pounds.

Though a popular myth, black panthers do not exist in the wild in North America. A black panther is a melanistic version of a large cat, usually an African leopard or a jaguar. These can sometimes be seen in zoos. Melanistic refers to the unusual black coloration produced by a hereditary, genetic mutation. There has never been a black mountain lion documented anywhere in their range.

Mountain lions prefer dense cover or rocky, rugged terrain, generally in areas of low human habitation, or regions of dense swamps. The size of the home range is typically 50 to 75 square miles for females and 90 to several hundred square miles for males. Mountain lions are generally nocturnal and are active near dawn and dusk. They feed on deer and other medium-sized and large mammals. On average, a typical adult lion kills and consumes about one deer per week.

Safety and reporting

The prospect of increasing mountain lion populations in Oklahoma causes a feeling of alarm for some folks. They cite the quickly growing bobcat population and are concerned that mountain lions could do the same thing if left unchecked. Oklahoma annually ranks among the top states for the number of cattle raised, and the potential presence of mountain lions causes much concern among producers. There have been no verified reports of mountain lions attacking people in Oklahoma, and no evidence of attacks on cattle, horses or pets. There has been one confirmed case in Cimarron County where a mountain lion was depredating a landowners goats and that animal was killed.

Our Wildlife Code continues to protect mountain lions from indiscriminant shooting, but also allows citizens to protect themselves and their property. It states, Mountain lions can be taken year-round when committing or about to commit depredation on any domesticated animal or when deemed an immediate safety hazard. Individuals who kill a mountain lion must immediately call a game warden or other Department employee. The carcass (including hide) will be examined by a Department employee within 24 hours for biological data collection, which may include the removal of a tooth.

If you have evidence of a mountain lion, or a sighting, please report your sighting on our mountain lion report page.

Mountain Lion Reporting Page

Characteristics of Mountain Lion vs. Dog Tracks

Mountain Lion Track

Mountain Lion Track
  1. Claw marks generally absent. If present, they will be sharp and narrow. 
  2. Four tear-drop shaped toes, grouped asymmetrically. 
  3. Trapezoidal-shaped heel pad. 
  4. Three-lobed heel pad with two indentations along rear margin.

Dog Track

Dog track for comparison with other wildlife.
  1. Toenail prints generally present will be broad and blunt. 
  2. Four, round-shaped toes, grouped symmetrically. 
  3. Triangular-shaped heel pad. 
  4. Heel pad lacks distinct indentations and three-lobed appearance.