CHEROKEE COUNTY – A big-cat sighting in East Texas may be uncommon, but not unlikely, said Billy Higginbotham, wildlife extension specialist for wildlife and fisheries at the Texas A&M research center in Overton.
“It is uncommon, but we have had confirmed sightings of mountain lions in East Texas before,” he said in response to an email claim about a cougar/mountain lion sighted along FM 2138 by a traveler headed toward Maydelle in late November.
“We've seen them confirmed in states much further east than we are here, and in the past 35 years that I have worked in Overton, several (East Texas) counties have confirmed mountain lions being seen. Several years ago, there was one (sighted) in Wood County, and not long after that, there was one in Jasper County,” Higginboth-am recalled. “Is it possible to have them in Cherokee County? It is.”
Reagan Pope, who contacted the Jacksonville Progress by email, said he was traveling about dusk Nov. 22 when “I saw what I thought was a deer just beside the road.”
Because it was growing dark and the weather was rainy, Pope said he was traveling about 45 miles per hour in his vehicle when he spotted the creature.
“I slowed down to around 25 MPH to cautiously pass the 'deer,' (but) as I drew near, I noticed it had a tail that was about two foot long and that it was quite bulky,” he said.
Driving past the animal, “I realized it was a huge cougar/mountain lion, approximately three foot tall and roughly 8-9 feet long, counting its tail,” he said, describing a coat with dark speckles in its fur.
The animal was completely unfazed by traffic, and Pope admitted while several years ago he had spotted a mountain lion drinking at a pond while visiting Colorado, he had never seen one so close.
“This one was just walking down the road, passing a few feet away from my car, and it didn't even look at me,” he recalled.
While Pope's stepfather – who is from Cherokee County – told him about mountain lion sightings in the area, including finding a cub on his property in the early 1990s, the actual mountain lion population of East Texas is unknown, according to Higginbotham.
“Nobody knows how many we've got, so the chances of interaction are very limited. Typically, we hear about sightings, like (Pope) has reported, or (slaying) of livestock,” he said, adding that the nearest known population is in West Texas.
“These animals can move great distances, and the ones we see traveling furthest are the younger males who are trying to find a territory of their own,” Higginbotham said.
While there are reports of attacks on humans by mountain lions – also known as panthers, pumas or catamounts – they have been in areas where populations are allowed to go unchecked, “primarily in California,” he noted.
In East Texas, however, “the population is pretty sparse, given the large area these animals can traverse,” he said. “As many hunters and landowners there are now who use trail or game cameras, it's still rare for someone to see or photograph one.”
Pope said he reported the cat sighting to the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office the night he saw it, and hopes his story will raise awareness of these animals living in the area.
“I've always visualized a mountain lion to be long and slender, but this one was bulky, where I could see muscle definition,” he said. “He was definitely doing good for himself.”
In July, a Cuney resident reported seeing bobcats walking along a street in a residential area of town during the day, which she said she thought was unusual, even though the animals were moving along peacefully.
Higginbotham said that if a person sights a big cat, to contact law enforcement officials, such as the sheriff's office or the local game warden.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife website, www.tpwd.state.tx.us, mountain lions are native to the area and are classified as nongame species who are reclusive by nature.
The site said that if you encounter a mountain lion, follow these tips:
• Pick all children up off the ground immediately.
• Do NOT approach the lion
• Stay calm. Talk calmly and move slowly.
• Face the lion and remain in an upright position.
• Do not turn your back on the lion. Back away slowly.
• Do NOT run.
• Do all you can to enlarge your image. Do NOT crouch down or try to hide.
• IF the lion is aggressive, throw rocks, sticks, or anything you can get your hands on.
• If the lion attacks, fight back. Fighting back can drive off lions.
Texas Parks & Wildlife has collected mountain lion sighting and mortality data for the past 18 years. If you have a verifiable sighting or kill a mountain lion please contact your TP&W biologist or game warden, or call Texas Parks and Wildlife headquarters at 1-800-792-1112.