The History of Lions in Texas
Mountain lions are native to Texas and historically inhabited the Trans Pecos, the Hill Country, and other suitable places throughout the state. The first European settlers arrived in the Texas Hill country in the early 1800s and viewed mountain lions as a dangerous threat to their own survival as well as a predator threat to their livestock.
These settlers established measures for predator control by any means possible. Predator removal was steady and unforgiving from the early 1800s until the mid-1960s. Historical records show that this persecution drove Texas to near extirpation.
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 Texas, 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.
Early History in Texas
Mountain lions inhabited the state of Texas before European settlers arrived and the Native Americans in the area hunted them for clothing, shelter and blankets. Some of the regional tribes include the Tonkawa, Kiowa and Apache. Apache men would grease their bodies with animal fat to disguise their human scent to be able to approach mountain lions and other mammals they were hunting. Many Southeastern tribes in the Texas territory had Panther clans, indicating that the mountain lion was a prevalent being in native tribal culture.
Early European settlers viewed the native mountain lions as a threat to life and livestock and a lethal predator removal program was quickly put in place. Any method of removal was fair game, including shooting, trapping poisoning and hounding. Private and government entities both encouraged and assisted these extirpation efforts and some involved a bounty.
By 1960, the fierce and unrelenting lethal removal of mountain lions and loss of habitat due to human development greatly reduced Texas’ lion population. Their distribution became generally limited to the Trans Pecos region of west Texas and to the Texas Hill country.
The need for concern over livestock predation in the Trans Pecos region has changed in recent years because the type of livestock has changed moreover from sheep to cattle. Originally, sheep ranching was common throughout the Trans Pecos region because of the animal’s ability to adapt to the rugged and coarse terrain. Since sheep are vulnerable to mountain lions and other predators, predator control remained deadly and aggressive. As the cattle industry in the state grew and replaced sheep, concerns for livestock safety relaxed somewhat although predator control programs have never gone away, even though data shows that mountain lions have a very small impact on cattle mortality. Texas cattle are less than 2% of a mountain lion’s diet.
Predator control in the Trans Pecos was, and still is, also used for perceived protection of big game species populations. The common misconception that killing more mountain lions will save more big game, i.e pronghorns, mule deer and desert bighorn sheep is promoted to protect and spur the big game trophy hunting industry in Texas.
Fur Trading Period
Mountain lions were among the furbearers sought for their skins during the booming fur trade that began in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/tcf01 Two brothers, George and Charles, were the first white settlers in the Waco region and established Barnard’s Trading Post in 1844 on the Tehuacana Creek overlooking the Brazos Valley. There they did a brisk business in the fur trade. Wildlife was abundant in Texas and between 1844 and 1853, at least 75,000 deer hides alone were traded through the post. Besides deer and mountain lion, black bear, bison and beaver were also desirable for trade. Hides and furs were packed into bales and transported to Houston by ox cart where it is reported that the going price for 100 pounds of fur was two dollars.
Both government and private bounties were offered on mountain lions during the early years of the state’s predator control program.
There has never been a closed season on mountain lions in Texas. Hunters and trappers may voluntarily submit harvest reports when they kill a mountain lion, but most do not, making historic data on the numbers of lions killed by hunting and trapping in Texas a guessing game.
Sport and Recreational Hunting
Texas has never reclassified the mountain lion as a game species and so there has never been a hunting season for them. As in the times of the early settlers, they may be trapped and shot in unlimited numbers year-round and are still considered open game.