Join or make a donation to the Sierra Club Take Action
Home Page   About Us   Conservation   Political Action   Outings   Meetings and Events   Volunteer  

Mountain Lion, Puma concolor

Natural History Information

Other names for mountain lions: puma, cougar, panther, catamount

Range: Historically the mountain lion ranged throughout the western hemisphere from northern British Columbia to Patagonia and from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast; the most widely distributed wild cat. Today their range in North America has been limited to the western half of the United States.

Habitat: Mountain lions inhabit most terrestrial habitats from deserts to humid coast range forest from sea level to 10,000-foot elevations. They live where there is abundant prey and stalking cover available.

Size: Male: can be more than 8 ft long and weigh 130-150 lbs, Female: can be greater than 7 ft. long and weight 65 - 90 lbs

Young: 1-6 kittens     

Gestation: 3 months

Diet: predominantly white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, peccary, and bighorn sheep. They will also prey on, rabbits, coyotes, and sheep.

Lifespan: approximately 12 years

Status: Due to their large home ranges it is has been difficult to attain good population data on the mountain lion. Some individual populations are listed as threatened or endangered. Mountain lions as a whole face serious threats, however, due to major habitat loss and fragmentation by highways and development. There is a year-round hunting season on mountain lions in Arizona

Threats: loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, and persecution by humans 

Anatomy / Physiology: Their hind legs are longer than their front legs for running and jumping. A long spinal column provides increased lumbar flexation while running. Cubs are born with spots to provide better camouflage. They are solid colored as adults. Their color can vary from gray, dark brown, tawny, buff or cinnamon red depending on their geographic location.

Social / Family units: Mountain lions are solitary except during breeding. Males do not help raise cubs. The cubs remain with their mother for up to 16 months at which they disperse to establish their own territories. Multiple female territories will often overlap with each other, but the females manage to avoid each other for the most part. Males have large home ranges that will overlap with multiple females. A male will mark his territory with scrapes and scent marking. Territorial disputes between males often end in death for the weaker lion.

Habits: Cats spend most of their time on the ground, but they are adept at climbing trees. They have learned to climb trees to avoid canid species which is why hunting dogs are often used to hunt the lions. Their chief range preferences are rocky precipitous canyons, escarpments, rim rocks or in absence of these, dense brush. The signpost for a male consists of a small pile of leaves and grasses which he scrapes together, and urinates on.

Communication: They communicate through scrapes and fecal mounds. They also have vocals that range from purrs, mews, hisses, growls, spits, and ÒscreamsÓ.

Defensive / Aggressive behavior: Very powerful, uses strong sharp claws and teeth to defend itself. A mountain lion will run up a tree to avoid dogs or wolves.

Predators: humans, other mountain lions

Locomotion: They can maneuver easily through rough terrain by running, swimming and climbing trees when needed. They are excellent jumpers. They can jump 18 ft into a tree and 20 feet up a hillside.

Activity: They hunt any time Ñday or nightÑ but peak at dawn and dusk and rest during midday. Their activity coincides with their prey's activity. It is not unusual to see a mountain lion during the day.

 

What are the threats facing mountain lions?

The main threats facing mountain lions today are habitat loss and over killing.

Habitat Loss

Mountain lions thrive in large, wild landscapes, which support their large home ranges and the prey that they feed on. They also rely heavily on open corridors to move safely between large sections of their range. Our growing population and development has increasingly limited the amount of suitable habitat space available for the lions to use. Roadways interrupt their movement patterns making it difficult for females to find males for breeding and many lions are killed by cars while trying to cross roads.

Overkill

Since the 1500's when western expansion began, mountain lions have been persecuted and hunted by people. Humans compete with mountain lions for prey species and livestock. Humans also have a great fear of large carnivores. All these factors combined made for organized elimination campaigns against not only mountain lions but other large carnivores including bears, wolves and jaguars. By the early 1800's almost the entire lion population was extinct in the eastern U.S. and by the early 1900's the western population was severely diminished.

In the 1970s the mountain lion was declared a game species, providing the first form of protection the species had seen. Today, many people still view the mountain lion as a threat, and illegal kills do occur. High-speed roadways in lion habitat have increased the number of mountain lion deaths by vehicles. Wildlife officials are more and more forced to remove lions that have killed livestock or threatened people. The greatest amount of human-caused lion deaths is from legal sport hunting. The challenge with sport-hunting is that there is not a lot of sufficient population data to assist game officials in making regulatory decisions. At the moment it is difficult to assess exactly what type of impact sport hunting has on lion populations.

Why is it important to conserve and protect mountain lions?

As a large carnivore, mountain lions have a significant effect on the ecosystem in which they live. Their predatory behavior regulates the population of their prey and in turn the plant communities that their prey feeds on. If the prey population should reach its carrying capacity, mountain lions will help to bring the population back to a level that can be sustained by the plant community.

Also, since mountain lions require such expansive, wild landscape, protecting the habitat for them will in turn protect the habitat of many other species of wildlife.

Are mountain lions dangerous?

Mountain lions are very secretive animals that tend to avoid human contact. Encounters are rare and usually not threatening. In the last 100 years, only 14 fatal cougar attacks occurred on the entire North American continent. In that time, more than 15,000 people were killed by lightning; 4,000 by bees; 10,000 by deer; and 1,300 by rattlesnakes.

Experts estimate that 75 to 95 percent of all lion sightings are not mountain lions, but instead are deer, bobcats, dogs, coyotes, and even domestic cats. When you only catch a glimpse of an animal, it is easy to mistake it for something else.

There are more and more people in their habitat, however, so chances of having an encounter have increased. Although they are still rare, if you live or hike in mountain lion habitat you do need to know what to do in case of an encounter in order to avoid a negative and potentially dangerous interaction.

Here is a table that lists recommended actions with the information about mountain lions that support the actions.

Recommendations

Supporting Information

Keep children under close control, and in view. Pick up small children immediately if you encounter a cougar. Do not hike alone.

60% of victims have been unsupervised children or lone adults.

Do not run.

Running and quick movements may stimulate chasing and catching response.

Stand. Wave your arms. Raise jacket over your head. Appear as large as possible. Move to higher ground if nearby. Throw sticks, rocks, or other object if within reach and accessible without bending too low.

Prey size, vulnerability and Òpositioning' influence cougar response.

Avoid dead animals and never approach kittens. Talk calmly. Back away.

Non-prey may be attacked if views as a threat.

Maintain eye contact. Do not look away. But if cougar appears agitated us peripheral vision to keep track of its location.

Eye-to-eye contact often restrains large cats. Direct eye contact from prey may inhibit predatory action.

Be alert to your surroundings.

Cats exploit all vantage points/cover when investigating prey.

If attacked, fight back. Humans have successfully deterred attacks by becoming aggressive.

A cat grasps with its teeth only if it meets with no resistance. Violently struggling prey may be released.

Secure pets and hobby animal in predator-proof enclosures between disk and dawn. Keep pets on leashes and off trails in the backcountry.

Domestic prey animals may sustain cougar populations at unnaturally high levels.

Keep garbage under control to avoid attracting raccoons, skunks, etc. Do not feed pets outside and remove extra feed from domestic animal pens. Do not feed deer and wild turkeys.

Cougars may be attracted to concentration of potential prey.

A cougar that treats humans as prey is a public safety threat.

Once a learned behavior develops it may not be possible to modify this behavior.

Source: Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group. (2005).
Cougar Management Guidelines.
(1st Edition). Pg. 93. Bambridge Island, Washington: Wild Futures.

Avoiding mountain lion encounters

To avoid problems with mountain lions, try not to hike, bike or jog alone in undeveloped areas, especially at dawn or dusk. Be sure to make noise while hiking in their habitat to avoid startling one.You can also take measures at home to avoid encounters in your yard.

  • Do not feed wildlife. Feeding deer, raccoons, and other wildlife is bad for these animals as they become dependent and habituated to humans, but it also can attract the mountain lions that prey on them. Also avoid water features in your landscaping.
  • Make noise when you're outside. Make noise at dawn and dusk when lions tend to be most active. Lions are also active during daylight, so seeing a lion during the day does not represent unusual lion behavior.
  • Landscape for safety. Remove any dense or low-lying vegetation that would make good hiding spots for mountain lions.
  • Supervise children. Watch your children when they play outside and keep them inside between dusk and dawn. Make sure they understand what to do if they encounter a mountain lion.
  • Control pets. Pets are easy prey. Don't let them roam free outside at night. If you do keep them outside, keep them in a kennel with a secured top.
  • Don't leave pet food out where wildlife can eat it.
  • Secure livestock. Place your livestock in sheds or barns at night with secure doors.

What can I do to help the mountain lions?

Educate yourself and others

Understanding the role of mountain lions and how to coexist with them will greatly reduce public fears and persecution of this important predator.

Stay active

Keep up to date with public and political decisions that affect the mountain lion, its habitat, and the species it interacts with. Be sure to let policy makers know how you feel on the issues. There are many times when policies are posted for public review. Many conservation groups will also ask for help in responding to big issues. These are great opportunities to voice your opinion.

Support conservation efforts

It is crucial that we work to preserve and restore wild areas for mountain lions to live in. There are many individuals and groups that are working to protect the land from development and roadways. Showing your support through volunteer time or monetary donations will help these groups to continue their efforts and be successful.

Live responsibly

Ultimately we won't be able to save the mountain lion or any other species until we as a society begin to make better lifestyle choices. We need to consider the effects of all our actions.

What are we doing to help mountain lions?

Our efforts in protecting the mountain lion are multi-faceted. First we act as a voice in the community by attending meetings and helping to frame mountain lion policies. We also seek to provide education to Arizona inhabitants concerning safe co-existence with mountain lions. One of our most significant efforts entails working to protect habitat for these animals and all of Arizona’s native wildlife.

Our education campaign includes:

  • Posting door hangers in neighborhoods close to lion habitat that inform visitors about mountain lions and provide safety tips for living around lion habitat.
  • Coordinating with Arizona Game and Fish and local mountain lion experts to conduct public presentations about mountain lion behavior, conservation, and safety tips. These presentations will also cover information regarding how mountain lions are managed in the state.

Sources

Logan, Kenneth A. and Linda L. Sweeney. (2001). Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore. Washington, DC: Island Press.Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group. (2005). Cougar Management Guidelines. (1st Edition). Bambridge Island, Washington: Wild Futures.

Additional Resources

Books

  • Cougar. By Karen McCall.
  • Cougar: The American Lion (Paperback) by Kevin Hansen (1992)
  • Cougar Management Guidelines. By Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group. (2005).
  • Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore . By Kenneth A. Logan and Linda L. Sweeney. (2001).
  • Wild Cats. By Candace Savage. North America's wild cats in photography and prose.

Internet Resources

 

Return to Consrvation Home Page

Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Chapter, 202 E. McDowell Rd, Suite 277, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 253-8633

Sierra Club

Sierra Club® and One Earth, One Chance® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club.
© 2001 Sierra Club. Sierra Club Website Terms and Conditions of Use and Privacy Policy.