Identifying Characteristics: Until 1993 their scientific name
was felis concolor meaning cat of one color. After 1993 the cougar
was reclassified as puma concolor. Absent stripes or
spots (as adults) this one uniform color on their upper parts ranges in
individual cats from greys to tans to yellows to reddish shades.
general, pumas that are farther away from the equator tend to be larger
and more grayish or tannish in color. Pumas that are close to the equator
tend to be smaller and more reddish in color. They have a paler, almost
buff color on their bellies with whitish throats and chests. Cougars have
pinkish noses with a black border that extends to the lips. The muzzle
stripes, the area behind ears, and the tips of their tails are black.
Their ears are small and rounded. Adult males may exceed 8 feet in
length from nose to the end of their very long tail and typicall weigh
between 130 and 170 pounds. Adult females can be 7 feet long and typically
weigh between 75 and 105 pounds. Kittens, or cubs, are covered with
blackish brown spots and have dark rings around their tails. The
markings fade as they mature. Adults are usually solitary but may come
together for mating. Females and their cubs or sibling lions may stay
together for up to two years.
Habitat: Absent the threat from man, lions are very
successful predators that can thrive in many environments. In North
America, as a rule, you can expect lions will follow their favorite
meal -- deer. In order to succeed with an attack, they rely on sprinting
or surprise which requires cover or concealment. Cover is anything
from clumps of weeds to forests and thick brush. Topography
(particularly ledges) or branches
can also hide a lion waiting to pounce. Lions can sprint approximately
40 miles per hour, leap up 15 feet in one bound, spring forward almost
45 feet, and drop silently 60 feet and land running. Lions establish
territories, with a male's often about 100 square miles, a female's
less than half that. These territories tend to overlap and be
shared by a limited number of lions. Their density varies
largely in response to availability of prey. In the Foresthill area of California
in 1985, 27 of the big cats had established territory
within 130 square miles. That equals 21 per 100 square miles or 8 per
100 square kilometers. Since they face increased danger even from
other lions outside their territory, they will not easily leave it,
Endangered or No?
Are there more cougars in the wild currently with present-day bounty hunting
bans? According to painstaking research, absolutely yes. Although
cougars were almost completely eradicated in the East, and their
range was severly limited in the West, public attitudes
changed, resulting in protections and/or hunting bans and quotas.
At the same time, modern ranches provided an abundant,
economical replacement for deer meat (and incidental grazing
for deer, antelope, elk, etc.). Analysts seem to overlook this
agricultural progress as one of the factors which has allowed
deer herds (favored cougar prey) to rebound from lower levels
when they were hunted more extensively by man in the past.
Also largely ignored is the the fact that human beings
have shown time and time again the willingness and
ability to learn from what they consider to be mistakes. We
no longer farm the way we did before the Dust Bowl, using
techniques such as contour plowing and crop rotation, to
say nothing of controlled irrigation. We no longer strip
mine without regulations to restore landscape. We now log
with sustained yield and biodiversity in mind and/or with
carefully planned tree farms. Due to changes in thinking,
the countryside has been modified as mankind felt the need
at one time for more arable land, at one time for more
lumber, and currently for more wildlife and "natural"
With this emphasis on the environment as an
abstract, we also no longer try to destroy predators
without considering their place in the habitat.
As a part of man's economic and political choices, once
vigorously hunted cougars are protected, and deer have even
been reintroduced to some areas where cougars are freer than
ever to prey upon them. A question to consider is what will
we learn from current policies? Will we learn the danger is
too great, or will we learn that we are on the right track?
Facts vs Folklore: Still thought to be endangered by
most, in reality mountain lions have made a rapid comeback
throughout the United States and Canada after bountied hunting was banned
in the 1960's. A recent estimate
by wildlife ecologists puts lion numbers at more than 31,000 in 12 Western
states. This number may be more mountain lions in the West than there were
before European settlement according to Maurice Hornocker, a senior
scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
as California estimate lion populations which were as low as
600 are now closer to 6,000. Though scientific studies are difficult and
expensive, Oregon is another state with similar estimates (about 5,000
currently). Recently, the presence of mountain lions has been confirmed
in Manitoba, Canada. My e-mails report sightings in regions where
they were considered extinct, including Nebraska, Minnesota, New York,
Indiana, Arkansas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ontario.
I have read of recent sightings in Kansas where I grew up without a
thought of mountain lion presence.
The Blame Game:
Although most current political and social planners worry about
the threat to wildlife from human encroachment, fruitful growth
(from human irrigation and planting) associated with cultivated
farms, ranches, and housing developments may be yet another
overlooked factor which has actually increased quality food for
deer and other wildlife that cougars prey upon. More plentiful
shelter and nesting sites in the form of storm drains, culverts,
junkyards, and out buildings have also been provided by
mankind (however incidentally) for smaller wildlife on the
cougar menu. Often conveniently fenced pets/livestock
are yet another human-provided source of fare for the cougar
An eastern scout proposed the novel (to me) notion
that, because we now fastidiously confine dogs that used to
keep small prey from our yards and other nearby premises just
a few decades ago, this has led prey species to seek our
"city comforts" much more freely and to multiply unexpectedly
with the vastly increased territorial safety. Before
assigning reflexive blame for a problem which may not exist,
studies need to be conducted (or cited more openly) to
verify whether wildlife numbers (foxes, raccoons, deer,
possoms, cougars) may actually have increased as a result
of man's expansion rather than decreased.
Released Captives or Migration?
Officials seem to be given more options if they declare a
cougar sighting to be that of a released captive. Certainly,
laws regarding keeping exotics are too lax in most countries,
so this is always a possibility when the description rules out
such as bobcats, dogs, foxes, etc. But all facts must be
considered. It is documented that the deer population
has increased significantly in states and provinces.
In response, protected cougars have surged to numbers that they
themselves now mainly control via their own behaviors. Unhunted
cougar populations with room to expand and a plentiful food supply
have been demonstrated to grow up to 28% yearly, allowing rapid
recolonizing of any suitable land--for hundreds of miles in every
direction and across rivers, roads, and state lines.
Greatest Population Limiter--Cats theselves!
Unhunted cats, however, do not overpopulate an area. Rather,
kittens may be abondoned by mothers unable to provide for them
in areas where they must compete with too many other predators
or as a result of other factors limiting deer herds and/or other
common cougar prey.
Another population check is intraspecies killing which is very
common in territorial disputes and breeding demands. Males will
kill even their own young to maintain their territories or to
breed successively. To survive, especially young cougars most
often move on to other areas/territories which are now exceedingly
plentiful certainly as a result of political protections and also
possibly as a result of man's cultivations which have increased
the harvest for all life, including wildlife.