May 28, 2008

by Moss

It's Mt. Lion Season again. Here is a great overview by James E. Knight.

The mountain lion (cougar, puma, catamount, panther) is the largest cat native to North America. The head is relatively small, and the face is short and rounded. The neck and body are elongate and narrow. The legs are very muscular and the hind legs are considerably longer than the forelegs. The tail is long, cylindrical, and well-haired. The pelage of the mountain lion varies considerably. There are two major color phases — red and gray. The red phase varies from buff, cinnamon, and tawny to a very reddish color, while the gray phase varies from silvery gray to bluish and slate gray. The sides of the muzzle are black. The upper lip, chin, and throat are whitish. The tail is the same color as the body, except for the tip, which is dark brown or black. The young are yellowish brown with irregular rows of black spots. Male mountain lions are usually considerably larger than females. Adults range from 72 to 90 inches in total length including the tail, which is 30 to 36 inches long. They weigh from 80 to 200 pounds. The mountain lion’s skull has 30 teeth.

Its primary range occurs in western Canada and in the western and southwestern United States. Sparse populations occur in the south, from Texas to Florida. Several mountain lion sightings have occurred in midwestern and eastern states but populations are not recognized.

The mountain lion can be found in a variety of habitats including coniferous forests, wooded swamps, tropical forests, open grasslands, chaparral, brushlands, and desert edges. They apparently prefer rough, rocky, semiopen areas, but show no particular preferences for vegetation types. In general, mountain lion habitat corresponds with situations where deer occur in large, rugged, and remote areas.
Food Habits

Mountain lions are carnivorous. Their diet varies according to habitat, season, and geographical region. Although deer are their preferred prey and are a primary component of their diet, other prey will be taken when deer are unavailable. Other prey range from mice to moose, including rabbits, hares, beaver, porcupines, skunks, martens, coyotes, peccaries, bear cubs, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain goats, mountain sheep, elk, grouse, wild turkeys, fish, occasionally domestic livestock and pets, and even insects. Mountain lions, like bobcats and lynx, are sometimes cannibalistic.
General Biology, Reproduction, and Behavior

Mountain lions are shy, elusive, and primarily nocturnal animals that occasionally are active during daylight hours. For this reason they are seldom observed, which leads the general public to believe that they are relatively rare, even in areas where lion populations are high. They attain great running speeds for short distances and are agile tree climbers. Generally solitary, they defend territories. Dominant males commonly kill other males, females, and cubs. A mountain lion’s home range is usually 12 to 22 square miles , although it may travel 75 to 100 miles from its place of birth.

The mountain lion does not have a definite breeding season, and mating may take place at any time. In North America there are records of births in every month, although the majority of births occur in late winter and early spring. The female is in estrus for approximately 9 days. After a gestation period of 90 to 96 days, 1 to 5 young (usually 3 or 4) are born. The kittens can eat meat at 6 weeks although they usually nurse until about 3 months of age. The young usually hunt with their mother through their first winter.

Historically, the North American mountain lion population was drastically reduced by the encroachment of civilization and habitat destruction. Some populations in the West are growing rapidly. Local populations may fluctuate in response to changes in prey populations, particularly deer, their primary food source.

The mountain lion is usually hunted as a trophy animal with the aid of trail and sight hounds. Pelts are used for trophy mounts and rugs; claws and teeth are used for jewelry and novelty ornaments. The mountain lion is not an important species in the fur trade. In North America, it is primarily harvested in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, western Montana, British Columbia, and Alberta.
Damage and Damage Identification

Mountain lions are predators on sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. House cats, dogs, pigs, and poultry are also prey. Damage is often random and unpredictable, but when it occurs, it can consist of large numbers of livestock killed in short periods of time. Cattle, horse, and burro losses are often chronic in areas of high lion populations. Lions are considered to have negative impacts on several bighorn sheep herds in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado.

Lions are opportunistic feeders on larger prey, including adult elk and cattle. Individual lions may remain with a herd and prey on it consistently for many weeks, causing significant number reductions. Mountain lions cause about 20% of the total livestock predation losses in western states annually. Historically, lion damage was suffered by relatively few livestock producers who operate in areas of excellent lion habitat and high lion populations. This historic pattern has changed in recent years, as lion distribution has spread, resulting in frequent sightings and occasional damage in residential developments adjacent to rangelands, montane forests, and other mountain lion habitat. Predation typically is difficult to manage although removal of the offending animals is possible if fresh kills can be located.

Sheep, goats, calves, and deer are typically killed by a bite to the top of the neck or head. Broken necks are common. Occasionally, mountain lions will bite the throat and leave marks similar to those of coyotes. The upper canine teeth of a mountain lion, however, are farther apart and considerably larger than a coyote’s (1 1/2 to 2 1/4 inches [3.8 to 5.7 cm] versus 1 1/8 to 1 3/8 inches [2.8 to 3.5 cm]). Claw marks are often evident on the carcass. Mountain lions tend to cover their kills with soil, leaves, grass, and other debris. Long scratch marks (more than 3 feet [1 m]) often emanate from a kill site. Occasionally, mountain lions drag their prey to cover before feeding, leaving well-defined drag marks.

Tracks of the mountain lion are generally hard to observe except in snow or on sandy ground. The tracks are relatively round, and are about 4 inches (10 cm) across. The three-lobed heel pad is very distinctive and separates the track from large dog or coyote tracks. Claw marks will seldom show in the lion track. Heel pad width ranges from 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm). The tracks of the front foot are slightly larger than those of the hind foot. The four toes are somewhat teardrop shaped and the rear pad has three lobes on the posterior end.

Although uncommon, mountain lion attacks on humans occasionally occur. Fifty-three unprovoked mountain attacks on humans were documented in the US and Canada from 1890 to 1990. Nine attacks resulted in 10 human deaths. Most victims (64%) were children who were either alone or in groups of other children. Attacks on humans have increased markedly in the last two decades (see Beier 1991).