Lions, Tigers and Bears of Texas
Article by Steve Nelle
Photos by Steve Bentsen, Ben Masters, and Jeff Parker
Editor’s Note: This article is a sequel to “Historic Wildlife of Texas” from the May 2018 issue of Texas Wildlife, about the historic abundance and ecological significance of buffalo, prairie dogs, prairie chickens, passenger pigeons and wolves.
History tells us that the plethora of wild animals encountered by the settlers was more magnificent than we can even imagine today. In many ways, early Texas was a land of paradise, and the incredible richness of wildlife was a big part of it.
Much of the information contained in this article is taken from the research of the late Dr. Del Weniger, a prominent natural historian. Dr. Weniger was Professor Emeritus at Our Lady of the Lake University and studied Texas wildlife for nearly half a century. He is most well-known as the author of The Explorers Texas: The Lands and Waters (Volume 1) and The Animals They Found (Volume 2). Landowners and natural resource managers will find both books interesting and informative.
The mountain lion has gone by many different names since European explorers first began describing the wildlife they encountered. It is variously called panther, painter, cougar, puma, catamount and Mexican lion, but today, many people simply call them lions.
Regardless of the name, the historic record is clear that mountain lions were present across most of the state and in places were fairly abundant. By some accounts, mountain lion populations may once have rivaled those of bears and wolves in early day Texas. Weniger wrote, “This feline was so common that the explorers encountered it almost anywhere they went even when not looking for it.”
In 1848 Viktor Bracht who explored Central Texas extensively, noted the “American lion or panther is very common in the uninhabited regions.” O. C. Fisher, who compiled historic accounts of the Llano River valley, said “The crouching panther was quite plentiful and rarely a night was spent by the early day ranchmen without hearing the scream of the panther.”
It is no surprise that lions were common in the rugged and remote Trans Pecos region. In 1853, Julius Froebel was traveling through present day Presidio County and stopped at a spring called Punta del Agua where he said, “The cougar, called ‘leon’ by the Mexicans, abounds here.” Further along, Froebel and his group came across another spring called Ojo del Leon, where they drove a lion from a freshly killed buck.
Lions are notorious sheep and goat predators. In the early 1900s C. R. Landon supervised a crew of 27 predator hunters in a 22-county area in West Texas where ranchers were experiencing heavy losses. In 1919, Landon’s men killed 242 wolves, 2,502 coyotes, 474 bobcats, but only 5 mountain lions, indicating that the lion population was already low by that time.
In the 52 years from 1915 through 1966 across the entire state, government predator control efforts removed 761 mountain lions compared to a combined total of 832,000 coyotes, wolves and bobcats. Although lions were once common across Texas, their numbers have been greatly reduced over the last 120 years. By the 1960s, veteran lion expert Roy McBride said “Lions were extremely rare in Texas.”
No one knows what Texas’ current lion population is but their numbers have steadily increased since the 1960s. Despite its size, this large cat is extremely elusive and shy. The mostly nocturnal felines are difficult to detect without expertise and good dogs. Even many seasoned hunters, guides and ranchers have never seen one in the wild. Undoubtedly there are more lions out there than are seen by man.
McBride said, “Panthers live across a wide area in West Texas and can also be found in South Texas. The population isn’t dense, but it has a wide distribution.”
In some places, lions are still significant predators of big game and livestock, prompting some ranchers to continue hunting lions. These predator control efforts are understandable because a single lion will often kill a deer a week and a female with young will kill two or more times a week. In addition to significant death loss, deer tend to move out when a lion moves in, so the total impact to a population can be appreciable especially for mule deer. The impact on sheep and goats herds is even greater since lions will frequently kill multiple animals at one location.
Nevertheless, it is widely recognized that large predators play an important if not essential role in maintaining balanced prey populations. Resolving predator issues to the satisfaction of all sides is complicated, interwoven with much emotion and misperception, and not likely to happen any time soon.
El Tigre - The Jaguar
Deep in Mexico and South America jaguars still roam, where they are known as el tigre. The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world; only Old World lions and tigers are larger. El Tigre was once found in Texas and was well known by early settlers who sometimes referred to it as the American tiger.
The name jaguar means “carnivore that overcomes its prey in a single bound.” No doubt, these cats must have been an unforgettable sight to early Texans and in 1847 Bracht said, “The spotted jaguar is the handsomest of all the native animals.”
Most explorers and naturalists indicate the jaguar was not common in Texas in the early 1800s. However, John James Audubon, in 1854 said: “This species is known to exist in Texas, and in a few localities is not very rare.
Bracht stated that it was found “especially between the Medina and the Rio Grande.” Zoologist Edward Cope noted that the jaguar still persisted in 1880 and that “…it was not rare in the thickets of the lower Nueces where it was hunted and the hides sold in San Antonio.”
In addition to its presence in South Texas and the Hill Country, Audubon wrote, “It extends to the mountainous country beyond El Paso.” Juan Alamonte reported jaguars in 1835 on the lower Brazos and General Sam Houston said that he had found jaguar east of the San Jacinto River. Spencer F. Baird who was the official zoologist of the 1857 Railroad Surveys said they were found as far north as the Red River. By these reports, the jaguar was found across large parts of Texas.
Regarding depredation by the jaguar, O. C. Fisher wrote, “This animal was never plentiful in Kimble County, but his presence was keenly felt by the early sheepmen, as the snarling jaguar was fond of lamb chops and was most destructive when preying upon a flock of bedded sheep at nighttime.”
In their classic scientific work of 1933, Nelson and Goldman wrote, “Jaguars are very destructive to large animals. It is doubtful that any wild or domestic animal is safe from their onslaughts. Cattle, horses and hogs are included in known jaguar depredations and many accounts indicate their special fondness for the flesh of peccaries.”
According to a 1946 newspaper article, a jaguar was killed near San Benito which was said to have killed 28 yearling cattle in a three-week period.
The fierce and powerful jaguar was capable of killing nearly any animal it wished. However there seems to be solid evidence that the jaguar rarely if ever directed its killing instincts on humans unless provoked. More than a few of the explorers noted that the jaguar was afraid of humans and would flee rather than attack.
The jaguar’s non-aggressive behavior toward humans is illustrated in this 1847 account of an encounter on the San Bernard River written by Captain William Seaton Henry: “While he was hunting coons with a friend, the dogs treed something in an immense live oak, over which they made an unusual commotion. Being the youngest, it was his fate to climb the tree and get the coon down. The tree was directly on the river bank and its horizontal branches reached nearly across.
“He climbed the tree and crawled out on one of those horizontal limbs. Expecting every moment to see the coon, what should present itself but an immense spotted tiger with eyes like balls of fire.
“What to do was the question. He could not back out; he dared not drop into the river for it was full of alligators.
“He fell upon his plan: he swung himself below the limb and hung on by his hands. The tiger walked over him, descended the tree and went through a crowd of nine dogs—as fierce ones as there were in Texas—which never even growled at him.”
Within the last 200 years, jaguars occurred from California across the southern tier of states all the way to Florida. Today in Arizona and perhaps New Mexico jaguars are still reported in very low numbers, wandering across the border from nearby Mexico. No credible wildlife experts believe that the jaguar will ever make a return to Texas. Like the wolf, they simply are not compatible with a growing human population or livestock production.
According to numerous accounts, black bears were plentiful across much of Texas prior to the mid-1800s and were an important commodity, providing food, fur and oil for early settlers.
Bears were present, if not abundant, in most of the state’s heavily wooded regions including East Texas, Central Texas, the Trans Pecos mountains, the Caprock’s breaks and wooded canyons, and all along the Red River. Bears were essentially absent from South Texas, most of the Rolling Plains and the prairies of north-central Texas.
Viktor Bracht, in the mid-1800s noted the area along the Pedernales was “the real paradise for bears” and other writers confirm the abundance of bears in the Hill Country. According to Olmstead, there was a man near Currie’s Creek in Kendall County who made his living by hunting bears. During a two-year period in the 1850s he and his pack of hounds killed 60 bears. In 1848, Father Emmanuel Domenech, a newly appointed Catholic priest describes bears around the settlement of San Marcos, writing, “Bears are very numerous in this lonely spot; and here for the first time I tasted of their flesh, and found it excellent.”
The large historic bear population in the Hill County provides strong evidence that the region was wooded, not grassland or open savanna as some contend. Bears are woodland animals and do not reside in prairie and grassland areas.
East Texas was also a bear haven. In the early 1700s Espinosa wrote, “The Tejas Indians in East Texas kill a great many bears and bring home a great deal of bear fat rolled up in moss loaded on their horses.” In Hardin County, “Uncle Bud” Bracken was considered the bear hunting champ, with 305 hides accumulated during his career in the 19th century.
Two hunters in Liberty County reported killing 182 bears from 1883-1885, all within 10 miles of the Trinity River. Another prominent Big Thicket bear hunter was the legendary Ben Lilly, who reportedly killed 118 bears in 1906. In 1785, Don Jose de Evis wrote, “The whole peninsula from the Sabine to the San Bernard abounds in deer and bear.”
Black bears were also numerous in the Davis Mountains in the late 1800s when ranching started in the region. Area ranchmen began a tradition of gathering together once a year for large organized bear and predator hunts.
On one of these hunts in 1890 (some say 1900) the hunters got a big surprise. After finding a freshly killed heifer, two ranchers gathered a pack of 52 bear hunting hounds. Most of the dogs refused to follow the trail but the remaining dogs followed the bear for five miles until it stopped in a brushy canyon.
When the ranchers caught up, they were confronted by a huge grizzly instead of a black bear. The old male was estimated to weigh 800 pounds, “1100 if it had been fat.”
Texas’ one and only known grizzly bear was killed that day near the head of Limpia Canyon. After help arrived, the bear was skinned. It reportedly took four men to lift the hide to be hauled out by horseback. The skull was examined by the U. S. Biological Survey and is still housed the National Museum of Natural History.
Unlike the mountain lion and jaguar, black bears do not subsist primarily as predators of big game or livestock. Black bears are opportunistic omnivores and studies confirm the majority of their diets are plant material augmented by insects, grubs, carrion and small animals. However, black bears can and do kill livestock. Wildlife damage experts say once black bears learn to kill livestock, they often continue to kill.
Bears in Texas were hunted to near extirpation by the 1950s and for several decades they were rarely seen. In recent years, though, bear sightings have increased in East Texas, Central Texas, West Texas, along the Rio Grande and the northwest Panhandle.
Bears are thriving in southeastern Oklahoma immediately across the Red River. Oklahoma biologists estimate a statewide population of about 2,000 with their numbers and range increasing. As a result of the growing population, Oklahoma has had a bear season for the last 10 years, with a harvest of 85 in 2018.
Bears are also abundant and increasing in the mountains of northern Mexico, especially the Sierra del Carmen. The spillover of bears from adjacent areas is helping to re-populate Texas with a species that was once widespread.
Our history of land and wildlife management in Texas includes some things we regret as well as things to be proud of. Earlier generations did some things we would not do today. These actions were taken mostly with good intent, out of perceived necessity, or because they did not understand the consequences of their actions.
The wildlife issues we face today are different and more complex than what they faced. We do not blame them for what they did not know, but we must do better than great grandpa did. We know more, and we have the greater responsibility to live up to what we know.
As the population of Texas continues to increase and as more farms, ranches and forests are split up into smaller and smaller units, the pressure on wildlife and habitats increases. Some species will suffer as human impacts intensify, and additional losses are inevitable. Private lands stewardship has never been more important to sustain Texas’ remaining wildness and to enhance conservation efforts on fewer and fewer wild acres.
Some magnificent creatures which were a part of historic Texas are now gone or their populations are greatly
reduced, while other species, once extirpated are now increasing in abundance. The future of Texas wildlife is a mixed bag of optimism and great challenges. May we resolve to face these challenges with good science guided by solid stewardship convictions with our eyes toward the future.