There is a cat with many names. Depending on where you live, it may be referred to as a: cougar, mountain lion, panther, catamount, puma (Puma concolor), or more than 30 other names from 11 subspecies in North America. And although some people may not see one of these wild cats during their entire lifetime, these large felines may be closing in on other areas closer to your region. Outdoor enthusiasts may encounter these animals on hikes, scaling walls during rock climbing, or camping in the wild: mountains, forests, deserts, plains and the wetlands of Florida. Even though mountain lions would be classified as recluse, (these large cats blend in with tan canyons), and use rocky terrain and dense trees for cover.
Statistics of Stature
Cougars can swim, climb trees, and jump up to 15 feet (4.6 meters) high. Even wide rivers like the Mississippi do not deter young cougars from expanding their territories—they either swim across rivers or cross frozen waters in winter.
Mountain lions are large and can grow up to seven or eight feet long (2+ meters); weigh up to 260 pounds (118 kilograms) and stand two to three feet tall at the shoulders, making them the largest feline in the United States. Sharp eyesight and keen hearing are their assets, and, in addition to their beautiful looks—tawny color, thick fur and large, powerful haunches—they can run up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph). Large paws and sharp claws help them bring down animals of choice: deer, elk, wild hogs, coyotes, rabbits, raccoons, birds and even porcupines. If they get kicked from something as large as a bighorn sheep or get stabbed with horns and that results in a broken back or broken leg, they may starve to death for the lack of being able to hunt.
History of U.S. Range
European settlers arrived about 400 years ago and discovered cougars in the northern most part of Canada and almost every area in the United States. Today they can be found from Canada to the tip of South America but in greatly diminished numbers. The early North American settlers, wanting to establish farms with livestock, and towns by expanding their girth with transportation, began competing for space with the cougars. Consequently, by the early 1800s, the eastern half of the United States was almost void of the large cats. The felines only survived by migrating to and living in unoccupied areas, and today that is largely the western United States. They prefer being in the shadows under the cover of night and mostly navigate in the dusk and early morning hours before sunrise.
It is roughly estimated that the cougar population has dwindled to 30,000 cats. Since they are quite solitary, it’s hard to know. They like to have territory as large as ten square miles or 26 square meters—land enough to support water to drink and prey to eat, and hunting is what they do to stay alive. But feline experts claim an adult cougar can frequent between 50 and 350 square miles.
Predator and Prey
Even though cougars tend to be elusive, wildlife specialists tell us they are most active when they are least visible. Animal trackers say these cats have a hunting strategy and that is ambush hunting, mostly for deer or elk. This stealth position gives them an 80% success rate because the cat spends most of its time seeking the right place and the right time to make a kill.
Resident cougars are known to spend hours on the hunt, walking slowly, eluding open areas, and staying out of sight. It uses its’ sense of smell and sight to listen and look for opportunity. Being solitary hunters, they have a need for a large kill approximately every seven to ten days and their home range tends to be very large. After eating some of the meat, cougars will often cover the carcass with leaves or grass to hide it from other hungry animals, returning to eat over a number of days.
Individual lions will avoid contact with others of the same species by scent marking—this is referred to as their “land tenure system"—even though they may use some of the same, well-used corridors for travel. For example, in the Sierra Nevada, mountain lion trails were recorded in June over many years, showing consistently crossed-corridors and many return visits.
Tracking Signs of Existence
Evidence of mountain lion tracks have a specific ID. Tracks are, on average, 3-and-a-half inches in width (8.5 cm) and it is typically an asymmetrical track with three lobes on the bottom of the heel pad, and a notch on top of a clear print. The footprint is relatively flat with the claws retracted. A weighted print with a compressed heel can indicate the mountain lion was carrying the weight of heavier prey in its jaws.
Another more telling sight is the incident of tree scratching (See: photo below). Long, vertical claw marks are typically four to eight feet off the ground.
Another indication are cougar droppings called “scat" which, are four-to-six segmented inches long, one inch in diameter, and will often be cluttered with fur or even bone fragments and may be near a kill.
And an audible sign of their presence may be heard as a female-sounding, haunting scream.
How to Protect Yourself
Travel in pairs and keep children in your spatial circle. Keep dogs on leashes.
Should you encounter a cougar, convince the cat to not attack by making loud noises, or try to appear as large as possible by extending your coat out. Back away slowly and leave the area. Don’t run—you may trigger the cat’s instinct to chase its prey.
If approached, stay on your feet and, if attacked, throw rocks, sticks or trekking poles to successfully fight back or use an animal deterrent spray. Protect your head and neck with scarf and hat.
Wild cats have been sighted in Utah, and as far east as Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Since the cougars main food of interest is deer, don’t feed deer in your yard and remove anything that attracts wild animals from your property; plus, don’t leave pets, livestock or pet food outside. Trim vegetation, bushes and woodpiles to reduce hiding places. Install motion-detecting light systems outside and even on the perimeter of property, if possible.
Lowery, James C. The Tracker’s Field Guide: A Comprehensive Manual for Animal Tracking. Helena, Montana: FalconGuides, 2013. Book.
Person, Stephen. Cougar: A Cat with Many Names. New York: Bearport Publishing Co., 2013. Book.
Scott, Traer. Nocturne: Creatures of the Night. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014. Book.
Shores, Erika L. Mountain Lions. Mankato, Minnesota: Pebble Press by Capstone, 2011. Book.