By Eddie Glenn
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Game Warden Brady May says anyone who tells you the Oklahoma Wildlife Department releases mountain lions to help control the deer population has a very limited understanding of wildlife management in this state.
“I’ve heard that one for years – as long as I’ve been a game warden,” said May. “And it’s just about as funny a joke as I’ve ever heard. The department has never owned a cat, let alone released it into the wild.”
Still, May gets quite a few reports about mountain lion sightings in northeastern Oklahoma – especially the black ones.
“Never in the history of the United States has there ever been, in captivity or in the wild, a documented black mountain lion,” he said. “But we had a wildlife expo at Guthrie last year, and one of our guys had a skins and skulls display. He put up a billboard with a map of Oklahoma and a sign that said ‘report your mountain lion sightings here.’”
May said visitors were invited to stick colored pins (the color of the pin corresponding to the color of the mountain lion sighted) on the map. The results, he said, were not surprising to the game wardens at the expo.
“They ran out of pins, and the black pins ran out first,” he said. “There wasn’t another place on the state of Oklahoma to put a pin.”
May said several species do have melanism, a genetic variation that causes some animals to have darker fur than normal. But that variation, he said, doesn’t exist in mountain lions.
So what are people seeing?
“There are about 700 to 750 black bears in Oklahoma,” said May. “It’s very possible they’re seeing a bear.”
May doesn’t doubt that people who report black mountain lion sightings have seen something. But he added that, at summer camps sponsored by the wildlife department for Oklahoma youngsters, game wardens conduct a little experiment to demonstrate just how tricky the senses can be.
Just as the sun is going down, before the campfire’s lit, all the kids stand around in a circle, facing outward. A game warden stands in the middle of the circle with a large photograph of an animal held to his chest. As each child turns around, the game warden moves the photograph into and out of his or her view. Then the kids describe what they saw. Without fail, most will say it was a photo of a cat of some sort – quite often a black mountain lion.
It’s actually a photo of a coyote.
So what about regular ol’ non-black mountain lions?
May said mountain lions do live in western Oklahoma, but not in the northeastern region of the state.
The mountain lion (also known as a cougar, panther, or puma) is tawny-colored and unspotted, with a small head, black-tipped ears and a long, black-tipped tail. Adult males can be more than 8 feet long from nose to tail tip, and weigh between 130 and 150 pounds. Females can be 7 feet long, and weigh between 65 and 90 pounds.
A male will usually range 250 miles or more, a female about half that, and they can travel as far as 25 miles per night.
“There have been confirmed sightings and road kills of mountain lions in the panhandle,” said May. “But not here.”
But Tony Stockton insists he saw something at his ranch on Spring Creek that perfectly fits the above description of a mountain lion. And other ranchers he knows have had similar sightings. One even had a calf beheaded by what he believes to have been a mountain lion.
“He wasn’t black, but he was dark-colored,” Stockton said of his sighting. “And he was a big cat – as big as me. He was big enough I wouldn’t want to pet him.”
May said it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a mountain lion could be seen in northeastern Oklahoma. In the past, there have been individuals in the county who were licensed to raise wild cats, and one could have been turned loose or escaped.
He added, however, that cats raised in captivity rarely possess the skills needed to survive in the wild, and there haven’t been any licensed wildcat owners in the area for several years.
Monte Dodson is a trapper who used to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, trapping animals in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona. He now lives in Cherokee County, and he – like May – is doubtful about the presence of mountain lions in the area.
Dodson said he heard about one killed by a train in north-central Oklahoma during the past year, but even that one was wearing a collar.
“I can’t dispute what they say, but I’ve never seen one here. Until one shows up, I’m going to be skeptical,” said Dodson. “But things can happen. They are on the move, and we’ve got a lot of deer – that’s one of their main foods.”
Stockton is pretty certain about what he saw. He’s seen bobcats before, and this cat, he said, was much larger.
“I’ve been out there for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he said. “It was big enough, it keeps me looking over my shoulder when I’m out there.”
As rare as mountain lions may be in Oklahoma, legislation introduced this session by Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, would allow an open hunting season on the cats during the month of December.
Currently, there’s a closed season on mountain lions, which means they can’t be hunted at any time in Oklahoma. Under the proposed legislation, hunters will be required to purchase a special permit, costing up to $20.
The legislation doesn’t stipulate what color of mountain lions hunters would be allowed to harvest.
Eddie Glenn writes for Tahlequah (Okla.) Daily Press.