Near the end of last modern-gun season, a bearded, camo-clad gent (hereafter the Mountain Man) walked into the local barbershop and sat down. The barber asked the Mountain Man how his morning hunt had gone. Not well, he said, as only does had approached his north-central Arkansas stand.
But then he narrowed his eyes, leaned in and said, “I saw another cougar last week.”
Asked if he was sure, the Mountain Man was unshakable. He insisted there had been no misidentification and this had been the second time he’d seen a cougar in the last five years.
The Mountain Man’s story was very similar to others I’ve heard – some from no-nonsense outdoorsmen (several of them relatives) I trust without reservation -- since settling in the Delta: a late-afternoon hunt; an unfamiliar, slinking movement in the undergrowth; a brief glimpse of a large, long-tailed, tawny (or jet black) cat followed by a nervous walk back to the camp/truck/ATV.
Later, I found a cougar-tracking Web-site (http://www.cougarnet.org/southeast.html) that contains a 1999 research paper documenting cougar sightings in Arkansas. Hoping for an update, I contacted the author of the paper – a biologist and university professor – but no luck. He’d stopped the cougar research and suggested the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission might have some answers.
When I told Jeff Williams – a very nice AGFC biologist/writer – what I was after, he wasn’t surprised. Calls to AGFC on cougar sightings are not infrequent.
“I hear it from people all the time – especially when they learn I work with AGFC. It seems almost everyone has a mountain lion or black panther story.”
Williams said he’d just been on a float trip where one of the paddlers told a story about a black panther that had been trapped in the family barn. “But there have never been black panthers in North America. There is a jaguar in South America that can be dark but it still has a visible pattern.”
Turns out the AGFC doesn’t deny the existence of mountain lions in Arkansas. It only claims there’s no proof of a wild population. There have been instances of escaped or released pets.
And wild mountain lions have been seen in neighboring states. Williams pointed to recent, solid sightings in southern Missouri, north Louisiana and west Texas. A mountain lion was also found in Oklahoma with a radio collar fitted in South Dakota – the cat had moved that far.
“So, they travel and there could be a few wild ones that wander inside our borders,” said Williams. “But nothing definitive has been found in Arkansas for decades. Until one is hit by a car or there’s a really clear photograph, we’ll be waiting.”