Chuck Norris was the biggest mountain lion Ben Masters had ever seen. For ten months, Masters and his cameras would periodically catch sight of him on private land in the Davis Mountains, where the Austin filmmaker was shooting footage for his 2022 documentary Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story. On Masters’s Instagram account, Chuck—so named because of the animal’s general badassery—became a minor celebrity thanks to updates on the big cat’s whereabouts. Here sniffing an aoudad skull. There lapping at a watering hole, his strangely small head bending so delicately and so powerfully. Yonder padding down a canyon trail with his lady friend. “Absolute Unit,” Masters marveled. Masters and his crew were thrilled to have found such a worthy subject. There are likely only several hundred of the imperiled cats in the state—the majority in West Texas—and sightings are relatively rare. Masters wanted Texans to see the majesty of the mountain lion, also known as the cougar, panther, or puma. The cat can weigh as much as 150 pounds, can patrol as many as 200 square miles, and can take down prey several times its size. Masters’s task wasn’t easy. “They were extremely difficult to film,” he recently said. “Much more difficult than ocelots.”
And then one day Chuck Norris appeared on camera with a few toes missing, the telltale sign of an encounter with a leghold trap. Masters was filming on several conservation-minded ranches that don’t allow hunting or trapping of lions. But these protected lands aren’t big enough for a predator that must pursue its quarry—aoudads (a species of horned sheep, imported from areas of Africa and now gone feral), deer, javelinas, and wild hogs, along with the occasional domestic calf, goat, or sheep. And many landowners in Texas have long viewed the mountain lion as an adversary, a costly predator that must be kept in check through trapping and hunting.
That was one of the last times the filmmakers recorded Chuck. Though Masters couldn’t know for sure, he was almost certain that the cat finally perished in a trap on a neighboring ranch, unable to escape this time. “That kind of made me change the story that we were telling in the film—to be honest with the audience about the fact that a lot of our cats are dying from traps,” Masters said. “I come from a hunting background; I come from an agriculture background, and a respectful death is almost this creed that you have with your quarry or the animals that you produce. And the way we are treating our mountain lions in Texas right now, there is absolutely zero respect.”
The Chuck Norris sequence in the documentary became more than just stunning shots of the state’s biggest cats. It was a call to action. Matthew McConaughey, in his narration for the film, notes that Texas is the only state of the fifteen with a breeding population of mountain lions that has virtually no protections for the species. Males, females, and cubs can be killed year-round, with no limits on harvest. Texas is also the only state that allows recreational trapping. When cats are caught, “it can take days to die from dehydration and exposure,” McConaughey says in his inimitable diction. “Every step they take is a gamble. And they are almost guaranteed to lose.”
The viewer sees Chuck Norris padding by a live trap with a skeleton inside (Masters’s team placed the trap and the skeleton there), followed by a close-up of its left front paw with toes missing. Then, a few shots later, as the ominous music comes to a conspicuous stop, the cat steps into another trap, this one disarmed and also placed there by the crew. “There are thousands across Texas that are armed right now,” McConaughey says. It’s stirring stuff.
While Masters was editing the film, he joined Texans for Mountain Lions, a coalition of scientists, wildlife enthusiasts, landowners, and others that was founded in 2021 to push for protections for Puma concolor. He soon became the face of the group—not without controversy. Masters’s documentaries had often blurred the line between filmmaking and advocacy, but now he was stepping firmly into the role of activist. “This is an iconic species, and we have no management plan for it,” Masters said. “Their long-term survival isn’t guaranteed in this state. And I just find it incredibly irresponsible to do nothing.”
Studying mountain lions in Texas is tough. As in the rest of the state, the majority of land in puma country—South and West Texas—is privately owned, making access to the felid’s extensive ranges difficult. Still, research suggests that the animals may be in trouble, particularly in South Texas. Every study on the species has indicated that humans are responsible for most cougar deaths. One eye-opening revelation from a study begun in the nineties: out of 16 lions outfitted with radio collars in Big Bend Ranch State Park, all were killed by humans on surrounding ranchland. One was shot, and the other 15 died in traps after they left the park. A forthcoming study, conducted in the Davis Mountains from 2011 to 2018, tracked 21 lions and found an annual survival rate of just 55 percent. Though the species’ genetic diversity is healthy in West Texas, it has declined in South Texas, where researchers believe trapping and habitat loss may be putting it at risk of extinction.
Texans for Mountain Lions decided to take a pragmatic approach. Masters, a hunter who comes from an Amarillo ranching family, knew that the coalition needed the support of many landowners, hunters, and livestock producers to have any chance of effecting change. For that reason, the group wouldn’t try—as environmentalists had unsuccessfully attempted in the nineties—to persuade officials to list the mountain lion as a game species, which could trigger the same kinds of regulations that Texas imposes for deer or turkey, including bag limits, seasons, and permits. Nor would it call for a ban on trapping, even though every other state with a breeding population prohibits the practice. Instead the coalition put together what it thought was a politically realistic “data-driven management plan” that is deferential to landowners and hunters—or as Masters puts it, “the worst regulations for any apex predator anywhere in the Americas.”
In June 2022 the coalition asked the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to rule on its petition, a set of six proposed actions, half of which focus on research and planning. Good data are lacking for Texas mountain lions; the state, for example, has no reliable way to track how many of the animals are killed each year, making it hard to estimate population sizes. One of the proposed regulations was to require mandatory reporting of any lion killed in the state. Three other recommendations were modest protections for the animals: mandatory trap checks every 36 hours, a ban on “canned” hunts (in which animals are kept in a confined area, making for easier hunting), and a limit for each hunter of killing five mountain lions in South Texas. Texans for Mountain Lions, Masters believes, has taken pains to stress that it’s not an antihunting organization. And he has tried to leverage his bona fides as an avid outdoorsman who used to guide hunts in South Texas to smooth the way in the hunting and ranching communities. But the landing has been rough.
At an August hearing, the eleven members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, a group appointed by the governor, got a dose of the intensity of emotion around mountain lions. By that time TPWD had already decided to deny the petition, and both sides were girding for a drawn-out fight, given that the department’s staff was recommending the formation of a stakeholder group that would advise officials on next steps. “There has been more than enough research done in Texas on mountain lions to know that they are in immediate need of regulated harvest,” argued Mark Elbroch, director of the Puma Program for the conservation nonprofit Panthera. Then there was the issue of cruelty. Unregulated trapping in particular is inhumane, many testified.
But the other side—a mix of hunters, landowners, and trappers—had their own story: they love the big cats as much, if not more, than the Texans for Mountain Lions crowd. They just believe the status quo preserves the proper balance between predators and prey, humans and lions.
“The mountain lion is personally my favorite animal; I have no desire to destroy it or see it vanish from the Texas landscape,” said Clay Richardson, a sixth-generation rancher who hunts near Ozona, in West Texas. “However, hunting lions . . . is an important part of our ranching operation.” Every year the cats kill about 5 percent of his herd of four thousand goats and sheep, Richardson said. And after 28 years of hunting with hounds, Richardson is sure that the cougar population in his part of the state is growing, not shrinking.
Some also see hidden agendas. Cable Smith, who hosts a podcast called The Lone Star Outdoors Show, warned the commissioners that the petition smacked of animal rights activism. “Texas doesn’t manage its wildlife based on the emotional whims of a small faction that seems to want to yell the loudest,” he said. “It makes me proud to live, hunt, and trap in a state that doesn’t have a history of pandering to antihunting or animal rights activism.”
Online the rhetoric was even more heated. On his podcast and through his Instagram account, where he has 143,000 followers, Smith regularly blasts Texans for Mountain Lions and Masters in particular, warning that the coalition represents a “cockroach infestation in wildlife management in the Lone Star State” and accusing Masters of creating propaganda. This past August, Masters posted a letter on Instagram from his wife to sponsors of Smith’s show, accusing Smith, whose name was redacted, of “spread[ing] false and defamatory accusations on social media” about her husband and stating that Smith’s followers had threatened her and her young children with violence to the point that the couple had met with the FBI. In response Smith recorded a short video in which he said any claims that he had incited violence were “utterly and unequivocally false,” and he instructed his fans in a separate post to “refrain from making threatening comments or messages on my behalf.”
The animosity runs deeper than a single feud. Bill Applegate, who’s based in Marfa and is one of the most experienced professional mountain lion trappers in the state, told me that regulating the killing of the cats would constitute “another step toward socialism.” Texans for Mountain Lions, he said, is motivated not by a love for the animal but rather by greed and a thirst for power. Researchers want more funding to study the cats and are thus putting out biased science to foster the sense of a crisis, he says, and animal rights groups are following a familiar script of playing on public affection for wild animals. “The public believes what they’re told,” he said. “They trust these people, and these people are gaslighting them. The facts are that I’m catching more lions now than I ever did.”
But if Applegate is right—that mountain lion populations in Texas are healthy, ever replenished by new arrivals from New Mexico and Mexico—why not support research and data collection to prove it as a fact? Applegate said he supports the state directly conducting research, but he is wary of relying on research gathered by private biologists. As with the broader culture wars in America, there is an unspoken assumption that one side can only win if the other side is losing. Trappers sense that they could be losing an important management tool. Their line of work and way of life is in jeopardy—even in West Texas. For example, some among the new generation of ranch owners want to preserve mountain lions, not kill them. They value the predator more than its prey.
Applegate has trapped a lot of lions over his thirty-year career—he won’t say how many because he believes any harvest count would be criticized—but he, too, professes a love for the species. If the lion population were in jeopardy, he would stop trapping, he said. “Ever since I caught my first one, I’ve been hooked. I’ve been wanting to learn more,” he said. “And I guess there’s two ways to study them: get grant money and put collars on them and sit behind a computer screen and figure out where they go. Or you can get your feet on the ground and follow their tracks and see how they might veer off the trail and what they might have looked at along the way. What kind of vegetation did they go through and what kind of terrain? It’s stuff that computers won’t tell you.”
Now Applegate has a chance to share his views directly with his adversaries. Appointed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, the mountain lion stakeholder group—its nineteen members include Applegate and Masters, as well as researchers, ranchers, and other hunters and trappers—has held two meetings so far, in Austin and Alpine, with more planned this year. Chaired by Joseph Fitzsimons, a South Texas rancher and former chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, the group is expected to issue recommendations to the commission in late 2023 or early 2024. Fitzsimons has instructed members “to seek to understand before they seek to be understood”; in that spirit, the first few meetings are reserved solely for presentations from experts. Debate and deliberation will come later.
Despite the acrimony, common ground exists. There was a time in Texas when many landowners dreamed of killing off all the mountain lions, as white Texans had done with the bison and the wolves. Few argue for extirpation anymore. Instead they debate whether the mountain lion is imperiled at all—and who gets to speak for a species that is so indifferent to humans that it seems to learn nothing from being hunted and trapped without limit. The proliferation of game cameras and home-security devices means lion sightings are increasingly common in parts of the U.S. But for most Texans, who live in cities and rarely spend much time in cougar country, the animal will remain a thing of the imagination. There’s power in that too, Masters said.
“Just knowing that there’s this one-hundred-twenty-pound animal out there fighting for survival, trying to jump on the back of something else and crush its windpipe with its teeth in order to get a meal,” he said, “it just might provide some satisfaction that this world isn’t entirely digital and pavement and concrete, and that there’s wildness that exists. And I think if we lose that, we’re going to lose a part of what is the Texas identity, which is this idea of open landscapes, of opportunity, and of wildness. And that would be a tragic loss.”
This article appeared in the June 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Pray for the Predator.” It originally published online on January 12, 2023, and has since been updated. Subscribe today.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that in the Davis Mountains study from 2011 to 2018, mountain lions had an annual survival rate of 45 percent. The actual survival rate was 55 percent. The number has been updated.