Nature calls: Understanding the mountain lion

By Richard Dale

Perhaps no other animal in our state can conjure such a swift and emotional reaction as the mountain lion. Almost everyone has a story to tell about them; whether a personal encounter or someone else’s, the tale usually has the awe and respect that comes from knowing there is a creature living free in the landscape that could, if it wanted to, make a meal of you.

The mountain lion, Puma (or Felis) concolor, is a large member of the family of small cats.

It is found throughout the Americas, except the Eastern U.S. and Canada where they were extirpated after European settlement. A tiny population of less than 100 animals holds on around the Florida Everglades, and remnant or introduced populations may exist in other remote areas.

If its Latin name says it is a cat of one color, its common name says the opposite – the mountain lion is also known as the cougar, puma, catamount, painter, and so on, for some 40 common names, illustrating its wide geographic range and cultural significance.

Its color and size vary with location; here it is tan to buff and 6 to 8 feet long, including a tail more than half the length of its body. There are about 5,000 mountain lions in California, back from a much smaller population when they were hunted, often for bounty, until their decline caused concern and they were protected by a ballot measure in 1990.

Mother lions teach their cubs to identify and hunt prey in their first one-and-a-half to two years. Then, each will set off to find a territory.

This period is challenging for young lions. It is the time when they are most likely to come into conflict with other lions and humans.

Few will successfully make the transition to adult. When one does, its home range can vary greatly depending on availability of prey – between 5 and 100 square miles, or more. A male’s territory is larger and may overlap with a few females’, but not with other males.’ Once an adult, a lion may live more than 12 years in the wild.

In our region, nearly two-thirds of mountain lion diet will be deer, almost one per week. It hunts by stealth, remaining hidden as long as possible then sprinting up to 35 miles per hour – yes, faster than Usain Bolt – and springing onto the back of its prey to break its neck.

It sometimes will trip its prey or get it into a stranglehold. It will cache or bury meat and come back several times to feed.

It climbs trees easily. Mountain lions can easily break other human records, leaping up to 20 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally.

In some areas, up to 5 percent of their diet is smaller livestock. But contrary to some stories, lions do not attack from below; domestic dogs or coyotes have usually attacked livestock when these wounds are found.

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of lions killed as pests by authorities were taken unnecessarily, and could have been spared if people were more thoughtful about food and placement of pets and livestock.

Human encounters with mountain lions are surprisingly infrequent. Recent data shows that lions in parks may spend much of their time within 100 yards of a trail, and use them for travel at night.

A recent increase in mountain lion encounters is attributed to development moving into their habitat and their prey, usually deer, moving closer to us for food and safety.

If you do encounter a lion, it is usually a lucky opportunity to witness something beautiful and powerful in nature. In the very rare event that a lion starts to treat you like prey, do not behave like prey. Stand tall, back up but do not run, look it in the eye, raise your arms over your head, shout, throw things, and fight it if it attacks.

Fatal encounters are very rare – a human is 700 times more likely to be killed by a deer.

Mountain lions are top predators. Only people, other lions, or disease, harm them as adults. They serve a vital role in ecosystems, keeping prey animal populations healthy and under control.

Because a main factor limiting their population is territory, a lion that is destroyed by humans is usually replaced by a less experienced lion, an animal more likely to get into trouble. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has good resources on how to be lion smart in a rural setting.

We live in lion country, and while that fact adds some excitement to the landscape, because they are at the top of the web of life it can also be said that mountain lions actually help create the beauty here that inspires so many of us.

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Richard Dale is the executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.