Mountain Lion Killed by Vehicle Near Minco, Oklahoma Provides Research Opportunity for Wildlife Department

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A mountain lion was found dead Nov. 1 along HWY 81 north of Minco after having been hit by a vehicle, according to Erik Bartholomew, furbearer biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The young, 130-lb. male mountain lion will provide an important research opportunity for the Department since the animals are rare and elusive and because biologists have had few opportunities to study them up close in Oklahoma. Bartholomew and a team of Wildlife Department biologists have already collected data on the cat to determine its age and condition, and the animal itself will be used for educational purposes by the Department.

“We took general measurements of the body of the animal,” Bartholomew said, which included the cat’s weight and measurements of its body, head, tail and paws. Additionally, a tissue sample was collected for DNA analysis to try and determine the origin of the lion, and a tooth was also pulled so that it could be sectioned and stained to more precisely determine the age of the animal.”

“His fur did have some faint spotting, and based on that, he would be a sub-adult between 12-20 months old,” Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew said the mountain lion might have been following the South Canadian River corridor in search of new territory, as young males are sometimes pushed out of the territories of older, dominant males.

“These young males tend to have very large home ranges and can have movements of over 200 square miles. They go out, they look for new territory, and this one unfortunately ran into a car.”

River corridors are major travel passageways for all types of wildlife. Bartholomew said since humans build cities and towns along rivers, close encounters with wildlife will occur, but a mountain lions basic instinct is to avoid people.

Bartholomew said the Wildlife Department receives scattered reports of mountain lions “all the time,” but only three have been confirmed this year, including one in the Tulsa area and another whose photograph was captured by a trail camera near Sand Springs.

Also called “panthers,” “cougars” and “pumas,” mountain lions are native to Oklahoma, and Bartholomew said it is a common misconception that the Wildlife Department denies their existence in the state. Another common but false rumor is that the Wildlife Department has released mountain lions in Oklahoma.

“There is no doubt from the Wildlife Department’s standpoint that mountain lions occur in Oklahoma, but the Wildlife Department has never released them here,” Bartholomew said. “Additionally, we have never confirmed reproduction of mountain lions within the state. Without reproduction, we do not have a population. What we have are transient animals moving through the state looking for new territory.

Many wildlife species and domestic animals can be and often are mistaken for mountain lions, so getting confirmed, verifiable sightings can be challenging.

“As scientists, we can only rely on those sightings that are verifiable and confirmed, and fortunately we have had the evidence in recent years to confirm several sightings,” Bartholomew said.

Still, Bartholomew said the cats are rare in the state and that few people will ever have the opportunity to see one in the wild.

“Mountain lions are very secretive,” he said. “Even in states like New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado where there’s lots of mountain lions, very rarely are they seen. In fact most of the ones that are seen are the ones that are hit on the road.”

One of the state’s most elusive species, mountain lions were originally found throughout Oklahoma and were thought to have been eradicated in the state during the 19th century. There have been few documented cases since the late 1900s, but in the last decade, the Department has documented several confirmations. In addition to those this year, an adult male was killed illegally in Cimarron County in February of 2010. In April of 2010, a young radio-collared male from Colorado traveled through Texas County in the Panhandle and is now living in New Mexico. In the fall of 2009, trail cameras from Tillman and Atoka counties recorded mountain lions. In 2006, a mountain lion in Cimarron County was killing a landowner’s goats and was shot, and in 2004, a young radio-collared male from the Black Hills of South Dakota was hit by a train near the town of Red Rock.

Several characteristics distinguish mountain lions from other wildlife and domestic animals. Its tail is more than half the length of its body, and it has black tips on the tail and ears. Their coat is primarily tan in color. Males average seven feet long and weigh about 140 pounds, while females average six feet in length and weigh about 95 pounds.

There is not a mountain lion hunting season in Oklahoma. However, the law allows mountain lions to be taken by licensed hunters, but only when a mountain lion is 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 Wildlife Department employee.

Officials with the Wildlife Department rely on the public to report verifiable sightings, photos and reports of mountain lions to help document the species in Oklahoma.

“The only way we get information is when people report it,” Bartholomew said. “If people send us trail camera photos and we can confirm the location, that’s great information for us. Likewise this one was hit on the road, and somebody turned it into us. That’s the only way we can get data on these animals because they’re so secretive. There’s so few in this state that we rely on the public in order to gather information on them.”

To submit photographs and report sightings of mountain lions in Oklahoma, call Bartholomew at (405) 385-1791.