Mountain lions have the greatest geographic range of any carnivore in the Western Hemisphere and they are the largest wild cat found in Western North America. Widely distributed across California wherever deer are present, it is estimated there are only between 3,000 to 6,000 cats statewide, typically found in the foothills and more mountainous regions of the state. California Mountain Lion range map.In addition to being found in the United States, they are also native and thriving in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.
Adults are uniformly tan or beige colored (while young have spots), three to five feet in length (not including the tail), and adults weigh between 80 to 180 pounds (females are smaller). Mountain lions are typically quite elusive, solitary animals, unless it is breeding season or a female is rearing young. For more information on mountain lions, check out our species information page.
If you suspect a mountain lion is frequenting your area, keep in mind that you may not see the individual animal, but may notice “wildlife clues” left behind like scat and footprints. Mountain lion tracks can often be distinguished from a coyote or a domestic dog. Scat is more of a rare find. It can be covered up similar to a domestic cat, does not always look uniform, and is typically left at a scrape for territorial marking. Typical mountain lion scat looks similar to a domestic dog’s feces would but larger and often with bits of hair and bone from its prey visible.
Managing Mountain Lions – A brief history
Photo credit: National Park Service
Though they have rebounded well, mountain lion populations were drastically reduced during the great expansion westward. Their former range was once all of what is now the continental United States. The decline of mountain lions began in the 1600’s when the bounty hunting of mountain lions began nationwide. As settlers began to move across North America in search of new territory, often with livestock in tow, they came into contact with mountain lions. Settlers believed the large predator would have a negative effect on game populations, as well as on their livestock herds and many rushed to collect bounties on the large cat.
In the eastern U.S., mountain lion populations were virtually non-existent in most states by the 1890s, with only a few remote pockets in states like New York, Vermont, Maine, and Florida. And by the early 1900’s, the mountain lion population across the entire US was decimated. According to the National Park Service, “loss of predators led to overpopulation of deer and other herbivores, resulting in overgrazing, increased erosion and decline in the long-term health of whole ecosystems.” (NPS. 2015) Yet bounty hunting continued until the 1960’s and by then it was too late for some states, where the big cat had been hunted virtually into extinction.
From 1902 to 1971, it is unclear exactly how many mountain lions were killed throughout the country, but we do know that over 12,000 lions were surrendered for bounty in the state of California alone, and among all “the western states which today still have viable mountain lion populations,” it is estimated that about 45,000 lions were killed during this time. (Cullens. 2012) Keep in mind that these figures account for any mountain lions that were turned into the states for a reward, and it is suspected many more that were killed went unreported.
Thankfully, California enacted a moratorium on hunting lions in 1971, but did not ban hunting entirely until 1990 with the passage of Proposition 117, also known as the California Wildlife Protection Act. In addition to the ban, this declaration gave added protections to mountain lions and allocated funds for habitat acquisition. There have been numerous attempts to overturn this ban in the state, but none have succeeded so far.
The eastern mountain lion subspecies (also known as “cougar”) was listed as a federally endangered subspecies under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Presently in Florida, there are less than 100 individuals in the wild. In 2001, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) reclassified the cougar from a species “of least concern” to “near threatened,” giving it added global recognition as an animal in need of protecting. Despite these protections, however, mountain lion populations have yet to bounce back in most of the country for reasons we do not quite understand. Unfortunately, mountain lions are still legally hunted in many western states today.
Coexisting with Mountain Lions
Once we began to understand the importance of apex predators like the mountain lion within an ecosystem, the way we manage this type of wildlife began to shift. Rather than instituting broad sweeping bounties on the big cat, many states began to adopt depredation regulations, many of which still exist today. In 1972, California began issuing these permits as a more controlled way to “manage” mountain lions under California Fish and Game Code Section 4802.
Photo credit: Mountain Lion Foundation
Depredation permits can be issued “to individuals reporting livestock loss or damage caused by mountain lions, if the loss or damage is confirmed by California Department Fish and Wildlife staff to have been caused by mountain lions. The permittee is required to report the fate of the permit to the CDFW upon expiration or fulfillment of the permit.” (California Department Fish and Wildlife. 2013) According to CDFW survey results released in 2014, between 1972 when the permits were instituted to 2013, only 33 total permits were issued in Los Angeles county and as a result only 12 mountain lions reportedly “taken” or killed by permitee holders. For the entire state of California, there have been a total of 6,175 depredation permits issued and only 2,816 total mountain lions taken over 41 years. (CDFW. 2013)
Presently, the only legal way a mountain lion can be killed in California is if it is considered a threat to public safety and an imminent threat. Poaching, trapping and hunting is illegal, however, it is considered only a “misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment. An individual is not guilty of a violation of this section if it is demonstrated that, in taking or injuring a mountain lion, the individual was acting in self-defense or in defense of others”. (Mountain Lion Foundation)
Main threats to the mountain lion today are habitat loss and fragmentation, depredation, urban sprawl, highway development and cars. As human populations and development continue to grow across California and the entire country, so will the number of encounters with all wildlife, including mountain lions, continue to grow. Despite this increased level of exposure to humans, however, there have only been 16 verified mountain lion attacks in California since 1890, and only six of those proved fatal. Statistically, you are 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar.
- Big Cat Rescue. “Cougar Facts.” http://bigcatrescue.org. March 15, 2015.
- California Department Fish and Wildlife. “Commonly Asked Questions about Mountain Lions.” https://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/lion/lion_faq.html. December 2007.
- California Department Fish and Wildlife. “Human/Wildlife Interactions in California: Mountain Lion Depredation, Public Safety, and Animal Welfare.” CADFW Departmental Bulletin. March 2013.
- California Department Fish and Wildlife. “Keep Me Wild: Mountain Lion.” https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Keep-Me-Wild/Lion.
- California Department Fish and Wildlife. “Mountain Lions in California.” http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/lion.
- California Department Fish and Wildlife. “Mountain Lion Depredation Statistics Summary.” http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/lion/depredation.html. 2013.
- California Department Fish and Wildlife. “Trends in Mountain Lion Encounters.” http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/lion/trends.html. February 2014.
- CA Senate Bill 132. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB132. 2013.
- The Cougar Fund. www.cougarfund.org.
- Cullens, Lynn; Dunbar, Tim; Rodrigues, Amy. “Failing the American Lion.” Animal Welfare Institute. https://awionline.org. 2012.
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. www.iucnredlist.org/details/18868/0. August 2015.
- KCET. “Mountain Lion living in Griffith Park, Wildlife Study Finds.” http://www.kcet.org/news/redefine/revisit/wildlife/griffith-park-mountain-lion.html. February 2012.
- The Mountain Lion Foundation. www.mountainlion.org
- National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/brca/learn/nature/mountainlion.htm. August 2015.
- Open Space Trust. “A Walk with Michael Kutilek: Rancho Canada del Oro.” http://openspacetrust.org. 2010
- Papouchis, Christopher. “Effects of Sport Hunting Mountain Lions on Safety and Livestock.” www.mountainlion.org. August 7, 2006.
- Western Wildlife Outreach. http://westernwildlife.org.
Ways to Discourage Mountain Lions
- Never intentionally feed deer, as the presence of their top prey will attract mountain lions. It is illegal to feed deer in California. For more information, check out the PDF for CDFW’s Keep Me Wild Campaign: Deer brochure.
- If you feed your pets outside, be sure to bring any excess food inside before nightfall to avoid attracting rats, raccoons, opossums and other possible mountain lion prey.
- If adding vegetation to your yard, be sure to use plants we know deer do not like to eat. For additional information on deer-resistant plants, check out the PDF to CDFW Gardener’s Guide to Preventing Deer Damage.
- Make sure to keep branches and brush trimmed to reduce hiding places.
- Never leave small pets or children outside unsupervised, particularly at dusk, dawn and at night.
- If you have farm animals or other animals being housed outdoors, be sure to provide adequate, sturdy shelters.
- Install motion-sensitive lighting around the house.
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife “Keep Me Wild: Mountain Lions” Brochure
- PDF (Poster)
What to do if you encounter a mountain lion
While it is rare to see a mountain lion in the wild, it does happen and it is best to be prepared! If you find fresh scat or a deer kill near a trail, you should exit the area immediately, notify others around and cover up the tracks or scat if possible so it is protected and marked. Contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Mountain Lion Program and alert them of your findings and the location so that they can verify and investigate if needed.
Be proactive! Things to do to protect yourself in mountain lion habitat:
- Discourage visits. Keep pets and livestock from wandering, especially at night, and clear brush on your property that may provide cover.
- Take a friend; don’t go out alone.
- Avoid travel when mountain lions are most active – dawn, dusk and at night.
- If you encounter a mountain lion in the wild…..
- Make yourself appear as large as possible. Open your jacket. Raise your arms. Wave your raised arms slowly. Make yourself appear larger by picking up your children, leashing pets in, and standing close to other adults
- Make noise. Yell, shout, bang your walking stick against a tree. Make any loud sound that cannot be confused by the lion as the sound of prey. Speak slowly, firmly and loudly to disrupt and discourage predatory behavior.
- Act like a predator yourself. Maintain eye contact. Never run past or from a mountain lion. Never bend over or crouch down. Aggressively wave your raised arms, throw stones or branches, all without turning away.
- Slowly create distance. Assess the situation. Consider whether you may be between the lion and its kittens, or between the lion and its prey or cache. Back slowly to a spot that gives the mountain lion a path to get away, never turning away from the animal. Give a mountain lion the time and ability to move away.
- Protect yourself. If attacked, fight back. Protect your neck and throat. People have utilized rocks, jackets, garden tools, tree branches, walking sticks, fanny packs and even bare hands to turn away cougars.