By Joe David Rice
I’ve seen several bears and a half a dozen or so bobcats in the wilds of Arkansas but have yet to spot my first mountain lion. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission says it won’t happen, chiefly because these large and elusive carnivores no longer exist in The Natural State – that the big cats were extirpated decades ago.
However, I am going to keep the faith. For one thing, more and more reports are coming in from across Arkansas alleging mountain lion sightings. The state’s biologists claim these are cases of mistaken identity, but I don’t see how anyone could confuse one of these wary creatures with anything else. That long tail is a dead giveaway.
More importantly, though, is that at least three of my acquaintances claim to have observed mountain lions in the backcountry of the state. These friends, all experienced and reliable outdoorsmen, certainly know the difference between a mountain lion and a bobcat. One inadvertently called in a cougar while turkey hunting near the middle section of the Buffalo National River, surprising them both.
Despite these and many other reports and a collection of photographs taken by game cameras with infrared motion detectors, the commission’s biologists maintain that any free-ranging mountain lions in Arkansas are merely pets which have escaped or been set free by irresponsible owners.
Wild mountain lions – or cougars, pumas, or panthers – have been confirmed in Missouri and Oklahoma and have been long-established in Texas. I think it’s reasonable to speculate that these noble beasts are slowly expanding their range and have naturally returned to Arkansas. While more and more of our countryside has been domesticated, we still have large wooded tracts in the Ouachitas and Ozarks where humans are relatively scarce. Now that deer populations have rebounded in the past few decades, mountain lions should have plenty of natural prey – and that’s not including the thousands of fat and tasty feral pigs roaming the woods.
So as I drive the rural backroads of Arkansas, especially during twilight hours, I’m going to let my eyes wander, ever hopeful of seeing that first mountain lion. I won’t even try to photograph it, knowing an image retained in my mind will last a lifetime.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, the first of which is now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.