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Cougar Information

Lion Facts
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cougar 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.

In 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, once established.
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" habitat.

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.

States such 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 pallet.

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.

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Last updated 10/12/2010

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