A study of the eating habits of mountain lions, carried out on private lands, is underway in one of the Sky Islands* of Texas, about 90-minutes north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Researchers from the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) at Sul Ross State University have managed to get more than 50 ranchers and other landowners to allow the study to take place on their properties. A formidable accomplishment since many of the ranchers in the test area harbored revulsion for mountain lions and have long sought to wipe them out.
"You have to understand the values that people have, the history that they [ranchers] have, the culture that they have," said Louis Harveson, the leader of BRI's research team.
While carrying out the study, Harveson has also provided participating ranchers with information about the biology and behavior of mountain lions and has asked them to consider the animal's role in maintaining nature's checks and balances.
"Mountain lions are the apex predator, just like sharks and oceans," said Harveson.
"There's a food chain that's in existence," he explained. "And that apex predator symbolizes wildness. This animal that's able to kill a deer a week or a large prey item a week, that just says that there's a good healthy ecosystem intact."
A member of the research team, wildlife biologist Dana Milani documents the lions' appetite for deer, rabbit and porcupine; an appetite that keeps those lower-level species in check.
Milani said that without the support of the study's participating ranchers and other landowners, she could not paint a picture of how lions sometimes help ranchers.
A case-in-point is rancher James King who has trouble with feral hogs. "I shoot a lot of feral hogs and they're hard to exterminate," King said. "And those lions are out there at night doing that job."
King said the antipathy toward the mountain lion goes back to the days when sheep and goats were raised in this part of the Southwest. Today, King said, ranchers principally raise cattle. He said he's encouraged by one development profiled in the study. "Here in the Davis Mountains, we're not seeing any kills of domestic cattle."
According to Louis Harveson, BRI researchers have documented more than 200 different kills by mountain lions over the course of the 4-year study, "and not one domestic animal has fallen to mountain lions and that's a fact."
That's a pretty good statistic, and hopefully one that might someday change the attitude of many Southwestern ranchers towards this critical apex predator.
* Sky Islands refers to a mountain range surrounded by flatlands.