When filmmaker Ben Masters set out to find mountain lions for his 2022 wildlife documentary, Deep in the Heart, his main objective was capturing footage of the elusive predators. There are likely only several hundred of the cats in Texas—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, which can weigh up to 140 pounds or more, patrol one hundred square miles or more, and take down prey several times its size. He got his wish. But it wasn’t easy. “They were extremely difficult to film,” he recently said. “Much more difficult than ocelots.”
On private land in the Davis Mountains, he and his cameras found the biggest lion Masters had ever seen, a male they came to call Chuck Norris, or Chunk. For ten months, the crew’s camera traps would periodically catch sight of the cat, and Masters would post updates on his whereabouts on Instagram, where Chuck Norris became a minor celebrity. Here lapping at a favorite watering hole, his strangely small head bending so delicately and so powerfully. There sniffing an aoudad skull. Yonder padding down a canyon trail with the mother of his three kittens. “An absolute unit,” Masters marveled on Instagram.
And then, one day, Chuck Norris appeared on camera with several missing toes, the telltale sign of an encounter with a leghold trap. Masters and his crew were 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, feral hogs, javelinas, and, yes, sheep and goats—across vast stretches of terrain. 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 Chunk. Though he couldn’t know for sure, Masters was almost certain that the cat had 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 told me. “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 sequence in the film—the first major wildlife documentary set in Texas—became more than just stunning shots of the state’s biggest cats, though it had that too. It was a call to action. Matthew McConaughey, who narrates the film, notes that Texas is the only state with a breeding population of mountain lions that has virtually no protections for the species. Males, females, and cubs can all be killed year-round, with no limits on harvest. Texas is the only state of the sixteen with breeding populations that allows recreational trapping. “When caught, it can take days to die from dehydration and exposure,” McConaughey narrates 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), then a close-up of Chuck’s left front paw and its missing toes. Then, a few shots later, as the ominous music comes to a conspicuous stop, the cat steps into another trap, this one disarmed and placed there by the crew. “There are thousands across Texas that are armed right now,” McConaughey says. It’s stirring stuff, though Masters’s critics call it propaganda.
While Masters was editing the film, he joined Texans for Mountain Lions, a coalition of scientists, wildlife enthusiasts, landowners, and others founded in 2021 to push for protections for Puma concolor. He soon became the face of the group. His 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,” said Masters. “Their long-term survival isn’t guaranteed in this state, especially in South Texas. And I just find it incredibly irresponsible to do nothing.”
Studying mountain lions in Texas is difficult. The vast majority of land in puma country is privately owned, making access to the felid’s vast ranges difficult. Still, research suggests that the animals may be in trouble, particularly in South Texas. Every study has indicated that humans are the primary cause of death. One eye-opening revelation from a study begun in the nineties: out of sixteen 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 fifteen 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 genetic diversity is healthy in West Texas, it has declined in South Texas, where researchers believe land fragmentation and habitat loss may be putting the species at risk of extinction.
The coalition 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 making change. For that reason, they wouldn’t try—as environmentalists had unsuccessfully done in the nineties—to convince 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 they call for a ban on trapping, even though every other state with a breeding population prohibits the practice. (California also bans hunting.) Instead, the coalition put together what it thought was a politically realistic “data-driven management plan” that is deferential to landowners and hunters—or to, as Masters puts it, “the worst regulations for any apex predator anywhere in the Americas.”
In June, the coalition asked Texas Parks and Wildlife to rule on its petition, a set of six proposed regulations—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 animals are killed each year, making it difficult to estimate population sizes. One of the coalition’s 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, and a bag limit of five lions in South Texas, where some research indicates the species is genetically isolated and declining in number. Texans for Mountain Lions, he believes, has taken pains to stress that it’s not an anti-hunting organization. And Masters 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 a hearing in August, the eleven appointed members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission got a dose of the intensity of emotion around mountain lions. By that time, TPWD had already decided to deny the petition—not a surprise to most—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. At the meeting, Masters and his allies testified that Texas lions were in trouble, particularly in South Texas. “There has been more than enough research in Texas on mountain lions to know they are in immediate need of regulated harvest,” argued Mark Elbroch, a scientist for the conservation nonprofit Panthera. Then there was the issue of cruelty. Unregulated trapping in particular is inhumane, many testified. Mountain lions don’t even receive the same protection as animals classified as “fur-bearing” under Texas law, such as skunks, raccoons, and nutrias.
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 my favorite animal; I have no desire to destroy it or see it vanish from the Texas landscape,” said Clay Richardson, a sixth-generation hunter who ranches near Ozona. “However, hunting lions . . . is an important part of our ranching operation.” Every year, the cats kill 5 percent of his herd of four thousand goats and sheep. 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 on the emotional whims of a small faction that seems to want to yell the loudest,” he said. “It makes me proud to live and hunt and trap in a state that doesn’t have a history of pandering to anti-hunting or animal rights activism.”
Online, the rhetoric was even more heated. On his podcast and his Instagram, where he has 144,000 followers, Smith regularly fusillades Texans for Mountain Lions and Masters in particular, warning that the coalition represents a “cockroach infestation in the Lone Star State” and accusing Masters of making propaganda. On August 8, 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 Instagram video in which he said any claims that he had incited violence were “utterly and unequivocally false,” though he instructed his fans in a separate post to “refrain from making threatening comments or messages on my behalf.” (Smith didn’t respond to messages from Texas Monthly.)
The animosity runs deeper than a single feud. Bill Applegate, a Marfa-based trapper who is one of the most experienced mountain lion trappers in the state, told me that regulating the cats would constitute “another step toward socialism.” Texans for Mountain Lions, he said, isn’t motivated by a love for the animal, but rather by greed and a thirst for power. Researchers want more state funding to study the cats and are thus putting out biased science to foster the sense of a crisis. 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 we’re catching more lions now than we ever did.”
But if Applegate is right—that mountain lion populations in Texas are healthy, ever replenished by groups in New Mexico and Mexico—why not support research and data collection to prove it as a fact? Applegate says he supports the state directly conducting research, but he is wary of relying on research conducted 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. Applegate and other trappers sense that they are losing. 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 was 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.”
There was a time in Texas when many landowners dreamed of killing off all the mountain lions, just as white Texans had done with the bison and the wolves. Few argue for extirpation anymore. Instead, they debate whether the mountain lion needs saving at all—and who gets to speak for a species that is so indifferent to humans that it learns nothing from being hunted and trapped without limit. For most Texans, who live in cities and rarely spend much time in cougar country, the animal will remain a thing of the imagination. But there’s power in that, too, says Masters.
“Just knowing that there’s this 120-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 says, “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.”
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.