Lion in tree

Though mountain lions once roamed the hills and forests of Oklahoma, persecution at the hands of humans has driven them locally extinct in the state. Fear and misinformation were the main forces driving this extirpation. But attitudes have changed since the early 1900s and there’s hope for the future.

If we support mountain lion-friendly legislation, open space conservation, and preserve corridors connecting potential habitat, we could reverse this situation and bring mountain lions back home to Oklahoma.

Click on the tabs below to learn more about mountain lion policy, laws, alerts, and more!

History

Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today’s Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.

What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the saber-toothed lion.

During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleontologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Oklahoma, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.

Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840’s, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.

European Settlement

As European settlers began to settle what would become the United States in earnest, they established farms, ranches, and towns, complete with various livestock. With the pigs, sheep, horses, cattle, and goats came conflict with the native wildlife. In 1895, the U. S. Department of Agriculture established Wildlife Services, whose mandate was rodent control and predator eradication. The idea that predators were vermin who should be removed from the landscape was echoed by bounty programs supported by many states. Mountain lions, wolves, bears, and bobcats were poisoned, shot, trapped, or otherwise killed by the thousands.

Fur Trade

In addition to heavy mountain lion persecution in the name of livestock protection, expanding markets for fur further reduced mountain lion numbers. In the 1600s, the fur trade in the Americas became globalized and hides obtained from Native Americans were shipped to Europe where they were in high demand. Europeans imported goods useful to Indians and were able to trade for the furs in exchange. Starting in 1602, the Company of New France was given a royal charter and exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic.

Mountain Lion Declines

By the 1850s, these trapping efforts made mountain lions increasingly rare in the eastern two thirds of the continent. Mountain lions were functionally extinct in the Midwest by 1860, the mid-Atlantic states by 1882, in the south coastal states by 1886, in central Appalachia by 1900, and in New England by 1906. Unfortunately, mountain lions in Oklahoma were subject to the same forces and did not fare any better. Though there have been various sightings throughout the years, there hasn’t been a resident population of mountain lions in Oklahoma since the early 1900s.

Recent History

In 1957 the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation listed the mountain lion as a game species with a closed season. The state can’t make any definitive comments about the potential population as they haven’t yet conducted research on the matter.

Though cougars have been functionally extinct for over a century, the USFWS continues to receive reports of sightings. They have not been able to confirm any of these cats were the eastern cougar subspecies, rather they believe these individuals have been released pets or lions dispersing from the western population.

With the appropriate protections to the species and their habitat, perhaps we could recover our lost mountain lions, and they could once again wander the land in which they formerly lived.

Status

Mountain lions once roamed throughout the United States. The Eastern cougar subspecies (Puma concolor couguar) was believed to reside within the northeastern region of the U.S. until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared it extinct on March 2, 2011. Early hunting pressures had wiped out cougars from the eastern two thirds of the continent. With the exception of an isolated population in Florida, mountain lions had been extirpated from most states east of the Mississippi River by 1900.

On October 27, 2017, a mountain lion (Puma concolor) was photographed on a trail camera in Custer County, Oklahoma. That marked the fourth confirmation of 2017 by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). Prior to this sighting, ODWC reported that individual lions had been documented in Cimarron County on January 10th and April 2nd and McIntosh County on February 1st, 2017.

While there have been 27 confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Oklahoma since 2002, the ODWC reports that there has not yet been any evidence of breeding occurring within the state. It is important to note that 27 confirmed sightings does not necessarily indicate that 27 different individuals have been spotted. Typically, these are multiple reports of the same individual as it moves through the countryside. Nearby states with established populations that may have produced dispersing individuals include Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

In 1957, the state of Oklahoma classified mountain lions as a game animal with a closed hunting season. Mountain lions are protected from indiscriminate shooting but, according to the State’s Wildlife Code, “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 mountain lions were to recolonize Oklahoma one day, they would fulfill a missing element necessary in sustaining a healthy, functioning ecosystem. The increased hunting pressure by mountain lions would work to restore balance to the landscape by reducing the amount of damage caused by the overgrazing of deer and elk.

Mountain lions pose minimal risk to humans. In fact, people can benefit from learning to live with lions. Studies have shown that these big cats can make the roads safer for drivers by reducing the number of deer and elk in an area, thereby reducing the likelihood that a collision could occur while driving.

Habitat

Before European settlement, mountain lions roamed throughout Oklahoma and beyond. Perceived conflict with livestock, heavy hunting pressure, conversion of wildlands to agriculture and other forms of habitat loss drove Oklahoma’s mountain lions to local extinction.

There hasn’t been much, if any, research specifically addressing potential habitat for mountain lions in the state, but there has been work looking at the importance of potential dispersal corridors across the U.S. A study by LaRue (2007) estimates that there are 9,243 square kilometers of potential mountain lion habitat in Oklahoma. This same study estimates that there are 128,608 square kilometers of highly suitable habitat across the Midwest. A viable population in Oklahoma would help provide potential dispersing individuals to help repopulate neighboring states across the Midwest and on to the East Coast.

Establishing mountain lion-friendly legislation and management practices will likely need to play a role in allowing this top carnivore to return to the great state of Oklahoma. Check out our Action Tab to see what you can do to help!

Law

Species Status

Mountain lions used to roam the state of Oklahoma, but were eradicated in the 19th century. As European settlers moved west, they killed off all of the mountain lions within the state, as well as most of the deer, mountain lions’ main prey. Despite this absence, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation decided to list mountain lions as a game species with a closed season in 1957. There is currently no resident population of mountain lions, and even with hundreds of reports of mountain lion sightings, only 11 have been confirmed.

More information about their protected game status can be found in the state code (Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 29, Section 5-411).

Visit the Oklahoma state website for further details.

The Legislature

Oklahoma is bicameral that is made of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each member is elected directly by the people of Oklahoma. The House consists of 101 members serving two year terms, and the Senate consists of 48 members with four year terms. Oklahoma is a predominantly Republican state.

Visit the Oklahoma State Legislature website for further details.

State Law

The state of Oklahoma has strict laws governing the how people are allowed to behave with respect to wildlife. Antelope, moose, whitetail and mule deer, bears, elk, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, and mountain lions each have regulations guiding their protections. Mountain lions are considered game species, as such, they are protected from being hunted, chased, captured, shot, shot at, wounded, taken, killed, or slaughtered. The only exceptions are for mountain lions that have committed a depredation or if the person performing the activities is authorized under the Oklahoma Cervidae Act.

Action

Though mountain lions once roamed the hills and forests of Oklahoma, persecution at the hands of humans drove the wild cats extinct in the state. That status hasn’t changed and Senator Casey Murdock’s bill to allow the sport hunting of the lion is rhetorical legislation that is wasting taxpayer dollars. To date, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation (ODWC) has reported that there is no evidence of a breeding population in the state. Additionally, with 40 confirmations since 2002, conflicts have been few and, with proper preventative measures, can be reduced or avoided completely.

While ODWC reported seven confirmed sightings in 2020, that does not indicate that seven different cats were seen. Often, a single individual is sighted on multiple occasions, which is evidenced in ODWC’s confirmation records.

Allowing the killing of the rare dispersing mountain lion that happens to roam through the state will likely offset any conservation efforts that have been made in Oklahoma and neighboring states. Male lions have large territories and will often travel many miles in search of an unoccupied territory or a mate. A more telling indicator of lion population growth would be the presence of female lions and evidence of breeding or kittens. To date, none has been reported by ODWC.

Lastly, hunting is not an effective management tool for mountain lions and has not been found to be a practical means of long-term conflict prevention. Instead, non-lethal conflict prevention tools are a more practical means of keeping pets, livestock, people, and wildlife safe.

We will post updates and action alert here regarding Senate Bill 769.

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