As I noted in my book Tales From Clear Creek, my interest in mountain lions began as a young boy. I was mesmerized by the stories my grandfather told of hunting them in New Mexico. Mountain lions are called by many names, including: cougar, puma, mountain lion, and panther. Granddad’s name for them was panther.
In 1956-57, I was working at a service station in El Dorado Springs, Missouri… A milk hauler pulled his truck up to the gas pump and got out of the truck to talk to me as I fueled it up. He said, “I saw something this morning that I don’t think many people will believe. A mountain lion came out in the road in front of me. It was near Clear Creek, out by Pape.” I had no reason to not believe him. I knew him. I gassed his truck each day. The gentleman was sober and not a prankster. He traveled the same road each day picking up cans of milk from farms and delivering the cans to the local cheese plant. He had no way of knowing of my interest in mountain lions.
Though the years other sightings of mountain lions were reported in that area and other areas of Missouri. A lady I worked with in recent years told me that in 1968 she and her mother were driving on a road near Pointers Creek in Osage County, Missouri when they saw a mountain lion walk out in front of them and then turn and walk back into the brush.
During the 1980’s I worked and lived in Howard County, Misssouri. Several times people I knew reported sightings of mountain lions. Back in my home area the editor of the ElDorado Springs Sun, reported seeing one.
Each time a sighting was claimed, the Missouri Conservation Department would issue a statement saying there were no mountain lions in Missouri. They always finished the denial with a statement that killing a mountain lion in Missouri was prohibited. I, as many others, viewed the contradictory statement with a certain degree of mirth. But, after thinking, it over I realized they about had to approach it that way. They could not have someone killing one just to prove it existed. They needed legitimate proof.
In October 2002 they got it, from a most unlikely place. A car struck and killed a mountain lion on the interstate in Kansas City, Missouri. It had deer hair in its stomach, as a wild cat should have. Scarcely a year later a car struck one on US 54 highway near Fulton in Callaway County, Missouri. It also had deer remains in its stomach. The conservation department had that mountain lion stuffed, and it is on display at the Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City, Missouri.
The wide use of trail cameras has proved that the mountain lion is back in Missouri; if it really ever left. Kentucky, Tennessee, Nebraska and Kansas are seeing an increase of mountain lion reports.
There are primarily three reasons for the increase in lion sightings.
First, the deer population in these areas has increased in recent years. Deer are the number one food for mountain lions. The varmints, dogs, house cats, and squirrels it catches are just tasty snacks. After a mountain lion gorges on a fresh deer or elk kill, it will drag the carcass into the brush. Leaves and trash will be scratched over the carcass to protect it so the mountain lion can return and feed. Should a person find a suspected mountain lion kill as I have described, it should be left alone and reported to authorities. The mountain lion could still be near. It would be dangerous to tamper with its lunch!
Second, as a local mountain lion population increases, young cats are forced out to search for a territory of their own. It would not be unusual for a young male to travel a hundred or more miles.
Third, humans are getting out into remote areas more. Hiking, biking, and camping is on the increase. The reclusive American lion is getting conditioned to seeing, hearing, and smelling humans.
My mother worried that I was taking my grandfathers mountain lion hunting tales too seriously. But later, she unwittingly told one of her own… About 1910 my maternal grandparents homesteaded 320 acres on a mesa in southern Quay County, New Mexico. It was south of Plaza Larga Creek Canyon and near the start of Alamosa Creek. They built a dugout to live in near an existing wagon road. Native Americans were still using the road occasionally. Since my grandfather was a carpenter and blacksmith, he built a sturdy roof and wood door.
One day as the children were playing outside near the door, my mother said a “wildcat approached.” Her mother hurried the children inside and bolted the door. Mother said the cat made strange sounds like a bird chirping. I always figured she was talking about a bobcat. Several years ago my daughter called me as she was visiting the Florida animal refuge. She said, “Dad! Listen to the sounds this mountain lion makes as it paces back and forth in its pen.” She was just a few feet away from the large cat, and held her cellphone up to catch the sound. It was the sound of a chirping bird! Mother was not talking about a bobcat.
As mountain lions become more numerous, so have encounters with humans. Should you encounter one, do not approach it, do not run from it, (they pull their prey down from behind), back away slowly. Make a lot of noise, make yourself look larger than you are by spreading your coat or sweater out. Never make direct eye contact. They seem to consider it a challenge. If one attacks,… fight. Use a stick, rock, knife or even your fists.
Yes, I have hunted mountain lions twice but have yet to bag one. I wanted to hunt mountain lions in Southern New Mexico, where my grandfather hunted. So, I hired an outfitter in the Gila River headwaters area. He was more of a trail rider than hunter. Nevertheless, I got over some of the same ground my grandfather hunted. A year later I traveled to Otero County and had a fun time trying to call one in using a call that mimicked the bleat of a fawn in distress. Instead, I called up a herd of mule deer that quickly left when they figured me out. It was a nice experience and I am sort of glad my mountain lion is still roaming the mountains of Southern New Mexico. I guess you could say he’s still roaming that branch of the Sundown Trail.
Want to learn more about mountain lions in the Southwest? Suggested reading:
Hunting American Lions
By Frank C. Hibben
Ben Lilly’s Tales of Bears, Lions And Hounds
Edited by Neil B. Carmony
Mountain Lions In Missouri
at Missouri Conservation Department Official Website
Cougars In Tennessee