(Editors note: The Statewide Large Carnivore Coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Myron Means, responded to our email about the AG&FC official stance on the presence of a viable population of mountain lions in Arkansas. His response will be the subject of Part 3 of “Mountain Lions in Arkansas?”.)
In the past 10 years, there have been 12 verified and confirmed sightings of mountain lions in the state of Arkansas.
One adult male was killed in Bradley County in November 2014, and hair had been collected from the same mountain lion from a cache in Marion County two months earlier.
DNA analysis of that adult male confirmed that it had originated from the Black Hills population in South Dakota.
Prior to the Bradley County lion, the last known mountain lion killed in Arkansas was in Logan County in 1975.
But with the number of sightings increasing across the state, “confirmed” or otherwise, and the seemingly encroachment of the big cats more and more into populated areas, the concern about the dangers of mountain lions to life and limb in the Natural State grows in proportion.
But is there really cause for concern?
Humans have not provided much food for mountain lions over the years. Statistics vary, but there have been between 12 and 20 fatal mountain lion attacks in the United States in the past 125 years — about one every 6-10 years.
Those bees and wasps buzzing outside a barn or porch? They kill 40 to 50 Americans each year.
That brown recluse or black widow nestled in one of your home’s ceiling corners? You are 40 to 50 times more likely to die from a spider bite than a mountain lion attack.
And your neighbor’s German shepherd? It is 400 times more likely to come after you than a mountain lion is.
In fact, statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that you are 75 times more likely to die from choking on a toothpick than from being attacked by a mountain lion.
Still, the number of violent encounters between humans and mountain lions (aka cougars, panthers, painters, catamounts, pumas and American lions) in the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years.
The obvious question is, “Why?”
The short answer: There are more mountain lions. There are more humans in the woods with the mountain lions.
The mountain lions do not fear the people, but view them as another source of food. The mountain lions try to kill and eat the people — and sometimes they succeed.
The long answer takes a bit more explaining.
All states in the “traditional” Western ranges report sharp increases in reported mountain lion sightings, as do states like Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. The rise is largely attributable to the combination of several factors.
A “Disneyesque” treatment of large carnivores coupled with an emerging “live-and-let-live” philosophy where the big predators are concerned, leading to the development of protectionist attitudes in the minds of most Americans — especially those in urban areas.
Mountain lions are territorial animals. Individual territory size ranges widely depending in large part on prey species density, but 100 square miles is about average.
Young lions must find turf not claimed already by a mature male. Mature lions often expand their ranges in response to decreased prey density.
It starts with dogs and pets. Mountain lions see them as easy prey and in some instances have been known to take a medium sized dog right off a leash.
Pets disappearing from suburban yards are commonplace.
People start making sure their pets are in at night and taking other precautions, and the possible food sources diminish.
It follows that an expanding cougar population will inevitably spread into areas of dense human occupancy, increasing the likelihood of unsociable human/mountain lion contact.
Unfortunately, mountain lions that that have been feeding on the pets also have watched children play with them. So the children become the new “favored target.”
Contrary to frequent reports, animals have no “instinctive” or “natural” fear of humans just because they are human.
Among predators, hazard avoidance and prey recognition are learned behaviors. Through repeated nonthreatening exposure to humans, a lion learns that some of the prey in its new territory is bipedal.
Because children and adults of small stature more closely approximate the size of other prey species, they are by far the most common targets for mountain lions.
The belief that animals prey on humans only in desperation due to age, starvation or other infirmary is a myth. Young, healthy animals account for the vast majority of lions involved in human attacks.
As with many predators, a mountain lion may attack if cornered, if a fleeing human stimulates their instinct to chase, or if a person “plays dead”. Standing still however may cause the cougar to consider a person easy prey
Exaggerating the threat to the animal through intense eye contact, loud shouting, and any other action to appear larger and more menacing, may make the animal retreat.
Fighting back with sticks and rocks, or even bare hands, is often effective in persuading an attacking cougar to disengage.
Again, the odds of you getting attacked are astronomical, but it does happen. Nationwide, 24 people have died as the result of a confirmed mountain lion since 1880, but 11 of those attacks occurred in the 20-year span between 1988 and 2008.
There has never been a confirmed fatal attack in Arkansas.
So, while the answer to our series question “Mountain Lions in Arkansas?” is most certainly a resounding “yes”, the danger of suffering a mountain lion attack seem to be at a minimum.
In part three of this three part series, we will examine the AG&FC policy on “Mountain Lions In Arkansas”.