Wildlife of the Rocky Mountains
Copyright © 2013 Travis N. Wood
Mountain Lions or Cougars
The mountain lion (Puma concolor) is called by many names, such as cougar, puma, panther, catamount (cat of the mountains) or just plain lion. Different names are often favored in different areas of the country. But none is entirely satisfactory.
Most commonly in the northern Rocky Mountains, the term "mountain lion" is probably used. And these pages follow that custom — despite, technically, the big cat being neither a lion nor originally restricted to mountains. (True lions belong to a different subfamily termed Pantherinae. See ITIS taxonomy.)
There are numerous sources profiling this species. A few are linked near the bottom of the page. We will not compete with them. Our interests are in sharing the backcountry with the big cat. But that does require some background information — even if not quite so thorough as in other sites.
So it is in our interest to include some brief notes on mountain lion habitat, reproduction, diet, and so on. Some of those factors explain how an encounter could more likely be a problem both for the cat and the human. Understanding the nature of mountain lions helps us understand how to conduct ourselves as hikers and backpackers in mountain lion country.
SPECIES BACKGROUND PROFILE
Mountain lions prefer terrain with concealment to aid in stalking their prey. So they select forest or high-scrub areas in steep or rugged terrain at mid-high elevations or along river drainages. In Wyoming, prime habitat includes the foothills of alpine mountain ranges and the entire Black Hills.
Male mountain lions are strongly territorial. They will battle other males to keep them out of home territories. However, males will allow a few females to share that territory. With those females, the male breeds. So it is possible to find sign of different mountain lions within the same territory. Those would be the male, a few females, and the kittens (or cubs) that the females tend and train to hunt. Generally, age classifications are as follows:
"adult," breeding age — beyond about 2.5 years.
Courtship can occur any time of the year, but in our area of concern, the peak time for births is mid-August. On average then, the female will give birth every other year to two to three kittens. The female then spends about 1.5 years training its young to hunt. During that time, it is possible, if rare, to see as many as three or four mountain lions hunting together (See photos on Flickr).
But as the male cubs grow, the dominant male in that territory becomes intolerant of the younger males and may chase them off, if they don't disperse soon enough. But sub-adult males are inclined on their own to disperse from their mother and seek their own territories. They are unlikely to mate until they are successful in that search.
If the dominant male in the territory allows the male cubs time to learn to hunt before being chased away, then the dispersing young male may succeed in establishing a territory of its own where it can prey upon wild ungulates.
In search of that territory, dispersing subadult males have been documented to travel up to thousands of miles — though the distance is most often simply beyond the territory of their birth and that of other powerful males. Subadult males do not remain in the territory in which they were born. The females, however, upon independence from their mother, may remain in the same territory of birth, if prey resources are sufficient.
If, before voluntarily dispersing or being chased away, the young male is not allowed sufficient time to learn hunting skills from his mother, then two problems may arise. First, the young dispersing male may be forced to experiment with various prey species, some of which may be domesticated animals such as pets or livestock. And secondly, the young male may be forced into fringe territories nearer civilization where encounters with humans pose a risk to the cat's survival. For these reasons, one way or another, young males are often the mountain lions that get into trouble with humans.
Similarly, if the mother is killed by hunting, vehicle collision, or other mishap, both female and male kittens may be forced to survive without adequate training to hunt. Thus both young females and males, in learning to hunt on their own, may become "problem animals" before or after they have secured their own territories.
THE HIDDEN PREDATOR
More than any large predator native to Wyoming and the Black Hills — including grizzly and black bears, wolves, and coyotes — mountain lions live by stealth and avoid being seen. So much more common than actual sightings, or even photographs, is the finding of mountain lion "sign," including tracks, scat, kill sites, or scratching posts — in that order.
Yet finding even tracks, for the careful observer, may be rare. But in more remote areas, they may be present on or near a trail at any time. Nonetheless, even along a trail where fresh tracks are found, sightings are unlikely. That said, the absence of tracks does not indicate that no lion is in the vicinity. Like housecats, lions may resort to dry ground, rocks or snow-free areas where they may not leave tracks. Yet tracks are sometimes found in deep snow.
For the reasons above, greater detail is in order for identifying mountain lion tracks and then the safety guidelines for hiking in mountain lion country. But a balanced perspective is in order also. None of this is to imply that the risks are great. They are not. They are small. Many other risks of higher magnitude confront the backpacker.
Yet finding the tracks of mountain lions and adjusting our behavior to theirs helps us enjoy and understand the behavior of the "hidden predator" from a distance most often of both time and space. With the lion’s penchant for secrecy and avoidance, hikers may pass in the vicinity of a mountain lion and never know that it was there.
With a balanced perspective, a backpacker will neither go to the extreme of forgetting that he or she is hiking in mountain-lion country, nor get distracted and pre-occupied with fear of surprise attack. If sightings are rare, attacks are extremely so.
MOUNTAIN LION SIGN: TRACKS, SCAT, AND SO ON
Tracks: Above is a diagram representing mountain lion tracks and a track of a large canine such as gray wolf. Below are photos of mountain-lion tracks in snow and soil. Each photo was taken in the Black Hills. And each print is likely the combination of the hind paw tracking (registering) directly over the print left by the front paw. That is how lions walk.
Thus the shapes in the photos tend to represent the rear paw but with remnants of the front paw, such as the apparent "extra toe" shown in one of the photos below. That direct overlapping, or "registering," is the way lion tracks are typically found. (More on "direct registering" is discussed below under the difference between cat and dog tracks.)
In each track below, noticeable are: the three lobes at the rear of the pad, the lack of claw marks, and the close spacing between toes and the front of the pad.
Lion Tracks Versus Dog Tracks: It is not unusual for dog tracks to be mistaken for lion tracks, especially by hikers not familiar with the distinctions. But in distinct tracks, upon close inspection, there are several elements that aid in distinguishing which type of animal left the prints.
1) Retractable claws. Cats have the ability to retract their claws and normally do so when walking. Thus their claws do not appear in their tracks. Dogs, however, are not able to retract their claws and thus leave claw marks in most any clear track we find. There may be rare cases in which a mountain lion briefly extends its claws in making a track, but it is unlikely. Consecutive tracks with claw marks indicate dog rather than cat.
2) Shape of pad. The so-called "heel pad" or just "pad" (technically, metacarpal and metatarsal pads) of a dog tends to be triangular, thus allowing an "X" pattern to be drawn from between toes to between pad and outer toes. The pad of a mountain lion is more trapezoidal, that is, with the front and rear of the pad being parallel and the sides of the pad sloping in toward the toes. With lion tracks, an "X" with straight intersecting lines can not be neatly found in the spaces between toes and pad.
3) Lobes in the pad. As part of the triangular versus trapezoidal shape of the pad, dogs have one lobe at the front of the pad and two lobes at the rear of the pad. However, lions have two lobes at the front of the pad and three lobes at the rear of the pad. Often the lobe appearance is not distinct at the front of the pads in tracks. But the three lobes at the rear of a mountain lion pad are often distinct in the tracks and are a strong indication of mountain lion.
4) Overlap of tracks. Cats and dogs walk by bringing their hind leg up and placing their hind paw over or near the track left by their front paw. With cats, the overlap involves the smaller hind track falling directly on top the front track. That is called "direct registering."
When dogs bring their hind leg up, they commonly do not center the hind track upon the track of the front paw. Instead the rear dog track may barely overlap the track left by the front paw. In this "indirect registering," the hind track is substantially off-center of the front track.
To the right are differences in sets of tracks. There are a few subtleties beyond these, and anyone wishing to examine the topic more thoroughly can visit Kim Cabrera's tracking pages.
The simplified distinctions provided are often not apparent when we track the two animals. Cats and dogs, mountain lions and Saint Bernards or wolves, make many subtle variations in their movements that may require us to study their tracks for some distance before arriving at any conclusion as to whether a cat or dog left the tracks.
As the animals swerve in the trail, twist their bodies, slow and quicken their gate, we find that cats often do not direct register and dogs sometimes do. What is consistent is that dogs can not retract their claws, but rarely do we find fifty feet of tracks that are clearly imprinted in the snow or damp soil. In the snow, wind may fill in the claw marks of the dog with fine powder, thus making the prints appear to have been made by a cat. Occasionally, if rarely, a cat may reflexively extend its claws on a track.
Nevertheless, if we are able to follow a hundred yards of fairly clear prints walking along some route, we can get a good idea of whether a cat or dog made them. Perhaps they are nearly four inches wide like a mountain lion. They follow the human tracks that preceded them. The tracks usually don't direct register as a cat would, and the claw marks fairly often are apparent. It is not a mountain lion stalking a hiker, but rather, it is his trusted Saint Bernard dog.
Scat: The feces of mountain lions may be distinguished by: segmenting, tapering or pointing on both ends, by size that is near to that of humans, and often by the remnants of fur or even small bones within the scat. In that form, lion scat is similar to wolf scat , which is also segmented but does not have the tapering at the ends. And that leads us back to domestic dogs, the descendants of gray wolves.
So scat is not the most reliable of indicators in areas where dogs may also be present. The South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks says that lion scat does not have a consistent shape. When seen, it often has the shape described above. But another form may also suggest the presence of a lion.
Scratching Posts: Rarely will scratching posts aid in knowing that a lion is currently in the vicinity. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife :
"Like house cats scratching furniture, cougars mark their territory boundaries by leaving claw marks on trees, stumps, and occasionally fence posts. Claw marks left by an adult cougar will be 4 to 8 feet above the ground and consist of long, deep, parallel scratches running almost vertically down the trunk. These gashes rarely take off much bark;..."
But because bear and ungulates such as elk and deer also scrape trees with claws or antlers, such trees can be difficult to identify as belonging to a mountain lion. Beyond that, accurate identification is likely to yield no information on recent lion activity. And the Missouri Department of Conservation (in a state which has no recognized, established lion population) goes so far as to doubt many of the claims made above on the nature of scratching posts.
MOUNTAIN LION SAFETY TIPS
Elsewhere in North American, mountain lion attacks on humans are rare. But because they have happened, knowledge of how to avoid or survive attacks is widely available. While safety guidelines are generally in agreement, some sources include tips not stated in other sources. A summary of most is as follows:
IF LION IS SIGHTED OR PRESENCE IS SUSPECTED
IF LION IS STARING OR AGGRESSIVE
IF CHARGED OR ATTACKED
Those are the general safety and defense guidelines. However, because the nature of the encounters or confrontations with a mountain lion may vary, steps necessary for hikers’ safety or survival also vary with conditions. The South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department (SDGFP) provides a web page on Mountain Lion Language to summarize the appropriate human response to a variety of mountain lion encounters. (Also see an outline of responses from Dr. E. Lee Fitzhugh, University of California.)
On the South Dakota Game and Fish page are seven scenarios, illustrated by photos, that vary from a distant lion that is paying no attention and moving farther away to a close encounter in which the lion’s ears are laid back, its teeth are bared, its tail is twitching, and the lion’s rear legs are "pumping" gently up and down. In that situation, where lion attack is considered imminent, that source recommends that the hiker charge the lion.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department summarizes these body language clues in the table below (See Mountain Lion Management Plan, Appendix V, page 44):
|Observation of Mountain Lion||Interpretation||Human Risk|
|Opportunistically viewed at distance||Secretive||Low|
|Lack of attention, various movements not directed toward person||Indifference, or actively avoiding inducing aggression||Low|
|Various body positions, ears up, may be shifting positions, intent attention, following behavior.||Curiosity||Low-provided human response is appropriate|
|Intense staring, following and hiding behavior||Assessing success of attack||Moderate|
|Hissing, snarling, vocalization||Defensive behaviors, attack may be imminent||Moderate, depending on distance to animal|
|Crouching, tail twitching, intense staring, ears flattened like wings, body low to ground, head may be up||Pre-attack||High|
|Ears flat, fur out, tail twitching, body and head low to ground, rear legs "pumping"||Imminent attack||Very high and immediate|
As indicated above, in rare circumstances a lion may follow a hiker from a distance for a short duration of time. But that does not necessarily indicate that the lion is "stalking" the hiker or preparing for an attack. Paraphrasing the University of Oregon's Outdoor Pursuits Program: A cougar remaining 50 yards distant is usually not going to attack. It may move around or follow you for a few minutes, but that behavior most likely indicates nothing more than curiosity.
For comparison of safety tips, see also:
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department
Colorado Division of Wildlife
National Park Service
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Cougar Fund Organization
Mountain Lion Foundation
LION VERSUS BEAR OR WOLF ENCOUNTERS
Many of the actions advised for a lion encounter are quite similar to those advised for encounters with a wolf or black bear — but in some ways directly contrary to those advised for a grizzly bear encounter.
With a grizzly bear, the advice is: do not make eye contact, do not throw stones or branches, do not convince it that you are a threat, and do not fight back if attacked — unless, of course, you are employing bear spray according to recommendation. So it is good to remember that, like individuals, different animals need to be treated differently.
MOUNTAIN LIONS IN WYOMING AND IN THE BLACK HILLS
From the late 1800s to the 1960s and 1970s, determined efforts were made to exterminate wolves and mountain lions from the Western United States. Of the two species, mountain lions proved more resilient and persisted in severely restricted numbers in the West. Efforts to extirpate them often involved bounties paid for each kill.
The Territory of Wyoming authorized bounties in 1882. In 1973 "the mountain lion was reclassified from a predator to a trophy game animal," thus ending the bounties. But hunting was instituted in 1974 by license and fee. In South Dakota, bounties ended in 1966. But only one mountain lion was recorded as killed in South Dakota from 1906 to1931. And that was in the Black Hills. Mountain lions were not protected by the state as "threatened" until 1978. They were not listed as a trophy game animal until 2003, and the first "experimental" hunting season began in 2005.
The Black Hills, along the Wyoming-South Dakota state line, is considered the easternmost mountain range of the Rocky Mountains. It is also currently considered the easternmost center of a breeding population of mountain lions in the Lower 48 States. With no alpine zone, the Black Hills in entirety is prime mountain lion habitat with a multitude of both mule deer and white-tail deer, and elk. And in the Black Hills are no resident populations of bears or wolves, thus making mountain lions the uncontested top predator in the area — other than humans.
Yet, until the late 1800s each of the West's large predators were represented by robust populations in the Black Hills: including grizzly and black bears, wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. Each is a native species to the area. Of those now, the coyote and mountain lion remain and the black bear is an occasional migrant. And though a dispersing wolf from Greater Yellowstone has been killed in the past few years in the Black Hills, wolves reaching the area are considered quite rare — except by some folks who seem to fear them.
So by 2005, the Black Hills area was considered "saturated" with mountain lions. The area was considered to have reached carrying capacity and to contain as many of the big cats as it could hold. Given the territorial nature of the species, the population could not increase without expanding outward. So in that year a hunting season was initiated.
Presently (July 2013), the Black Hills contain the only known breeding population of mountain lions in the state of South Dakota and far eastward. And Black Hills lions have been documented to travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles. They travel mostly along river drainages, to as far as southern Canada , Wisconsin , Oklahoma , and other states. As far away as New England, genetic testing has proven that a mountain lion found there originated in the Black Hills.
Nevertheless, due to the lions' secretive nature, sightings even within the Black Hills are rare. Arriving at a population count in the Black Hills has been difficult. In 2005, it was thought that about 165 lions resided in the South Dakota portion of the Black Hills with about 10 of them thought to be adult males with established territories, 40 were females of breeding age, and the other 90 to 100 were sub-adults, less than two years old.
However, according to South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks the estimated population for 2008 was 220 to 280 mountain lions, and that remained the estimate up to 2010. (See Management Plan, page 4.) The increase over what was previously considered carrying capacity or species "saturation" is the result of revised formulas for calculating population. With perhaps half that many in the Wyoming portion of the Black Hills, the entire mountain range may be home to around 375 of the big cats.
In the roughly 138-year history of Black Hills settlement, according the South Dakota Mountain Lion Management Plan: To date, there has been no documented wild mountain lion attack on a human being in the Black Hills. That is much the same for the state of Wyoming as a whole — with perhaps a small exception in which a man was very slightly injured in an encounter near Laramie in 2006. However, to be realistic, for most of that history, the native mountain-lion population was severely limited.
In the entire 20th century, no more than 17 people were slain by mountain lions in the United States. Though mountain lions are shy animals if allowed to mature normally in a natural habitat, some lose that shyness nearer towns. In the Black Hills, lions are occasionally sighted entering inhabited areas where they have been discovered in trees, crossing streets, in backyards, under porch steps, and so on.
HOAXES AND EMAIL PHOTOS
Emails forwarded. For a review of hoaxes that have been perpetrated about mountain lions as far away as New York, see this web page at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation . You may notice that photographs proven to have been taken in Wyoming, such as the photo to the right, have been circulated within the state of New York with the claim of having been taken in that state. The simple lesson is to be very skeptical of forwarded emails about mountain lions.
Local hoaxes or false alarms. In the winter of 2007-2008, news media in the Black Hills area gave much attention to a purported mountain lion attack on a human being. Frankly, the news coverage was not very objective. It seemed each news outlet swallowed the story with little skepticism. If the claim had proven valid, it would have been the first documented wild lion attack on a human being in Black Hills history. But news outlets accepted the story and spread it wide.
The South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department
immediately launched a thorough investigation into the claim. That investigation
included meeting the claimed "victim" at the hospital, going to the site of the
claim, searching with trained dogs within two hours and in the days following,
obtaining DNA analysis of all possible material evidence, and so on. Many people
believed the claim. Comments on websites verged on hysteria for children and
pets. Some denounced even the presence of mountain lions in the Black Hills.
But as days passed, the trained and highly experienced search dogs could find no trace of any mountain lion even having been in the area. There was no blood or evidence of struggle at the site of the claimed attack. The supposed "victim's" wounds were inconsistent with mountain lion claws or bite. The DNA evidence all came back negative for both mountain lion and the red fox the claimed "victim" had said was in the mountain lion's mouth before the struggle. The man first had claimed the struggle had lasted 5 minutes then changed his story to 5 seconds. He admitted to having drunk several beers before the incident. But there was simply no real evidence of such a struggle to be found.
While carefully declining to even mention "hoax," the thorough investigation employing the best forensic science available persuaded Game and Fish that the agency could not confirm the account. There was simply no corroborating evidence and far too many inconsistencies in the claim. So finally, news reports became more objective, carefully reported the many problems with the man's story, and he disappeared from public notice. The claim of attack was simply not credible.
LINKS WITH ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Government Agencies and Universities:
Wyoming Game & Fish
South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan
Boulder County, Colorado Open Space
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
British Columbia Cougar Page
Rocky Mountain National Park
Texas Tech University
Cougar Attacks on Humans in N America