Though mountain lions once roamed the hills and forests of Oklahoma, persecution at the hands of humans has driven them locally extinct in the state.
Fear and misinformation were the main forces driving this extirpation.
But attitudes have changed since the early 1900s and there's hope for the future.
If we support mountain lion-friendly legislation, open space conservation, and preserve corridors connecting potential habitat, we could reverse this situation and bring mountain lions back home to Oklahoma.
Mountain lions once roamed throughout the United States. The Eastern cougar subspecies (Puma concolor couguar) was believed to reside within the northeastern region of the U.S. until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared it extinct on March 2, 2011. Early hunting pressures had wiped out cougars from the eastern two thirds of the continent. With the exception of an isolated population in Florida, mountain lions had been extirpated from most states east of the Mississippi River by 1900.
On October 27, 2017, a mountain lion (Puma concolor) was photographed on a trail camera in Custer County, Oklahoma. That marked the fourth confirmation of 2017 by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). Prior to this sighting, ODWC reported that individual lions had been documented in Cimarron County on January 10th and April 2nd and McIntosh County on February 1st, 2017.
While there have been 27 confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Oklahoma since 2002, the ODWC reports that there has not yet been any evidence of breeding occurring within the state. It is important to note that 27 confirmed sightings does not necessarily indicate that 27 different individuals have been spotted. Typically, these are multiple reports of the same individual as it moves through the countryside. Nearby states with established populations that may have produced dispersing individuals include Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.
In 1957, the state of Oklahoma classified mountain lions as a game animal with a closed hunting season. Mountain lions are protected from indiscriminate shooting but, according to the State's Wildlife Code, "Mountain lions can be taken year-round when 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 Department employee. The carcass (including hide) will be examined by a Department employee within 24 hours for biological data collection, which may include the removal of a tooth."
If mountain lions were to recolonize Oklahoma one day, they would fulfill a missing element necessary in sustaining a healthy, functioning ecosystem. The increased hunting pressure by mountain lions would work to restore balance to the landscape by reducing the amount of damage caused by the overgrazing of deer and elk.
Mountain lions pose minimal risk to humans. In fact, people can benefit from learning to live with lions. Studies have shown that these big cats can make the roads safer for drivers by reducing the number of deer and elk in an area, thereby reducing the likelihood that a collision could occur while driving.