The mountain lion (Puma concolor)—also known as the cougar and puma—is the largest wild felid, or member of the cat family, in Colorado. Mountain lions are obligate carnivores, meaning that only animal flesh can meet their bodies’ nutritional needs. They inhabit much of Colorado’s foothills and mountains. Although they can be found anywhere in the state, they are rarely found on the eastern plains of Colorado.
Mountain lions are the cat of one color, hence the Latin term “concolor”—tawny to light cinnamon with a light underside and black-tipped ears and tail. Males are larger than females, weighing an average of 130-150 pounds and 8 feet in length. On average, females weigh 80-100 pounds and may be up to 7 -feet long.
Historically, mountain lions had the broadest geographic range of any North American mammal, but widespread hunting greatly reduced the geographic distribution and population of these animals by the 1960s. Persecution of mountain lions was largely driven by human fear and the protection of livestock. Until 1965 the status of mountain lions in Colorado was that of a varmint, with a $50 bounty. In 1965 their legal status changed to that of a big game animal, reflecting growing public appreciation and concern for mountain lions. After decades of sound management, mountain lion populations in Colorado are viable across much of the animal’s historic range and provide hunting opportunities across the state.
Recent mountain lion management has resulted in their reestablishment eastward, and they have expanded into Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. Dispersed mountain lions have also been reported in other Midwestern states and points farther east, where one was killed by a vehicle in Connecticut.
The average life span of mountain lions is about twelve years, although it is less in hunted populations and for males, as they are more susceptible to hunting. Females begin to reproduce at about two years of age, usually having two to three kittens per litter, with an average birth interval of eighteen months. Kittens are born all year, with birth rates rising in late spring and throughout the summer. Average population density in suitable habitat is about two to three independent adult mountain lions (at least two years old) per thirty-eight square miles, generally with more females in the population than males.
Reported survival rates for mountain lions range between 75 percent to 90 percent for adults and 70 percent to 75 percent for dependent young. Natural sources of mortality for mountain lions include predation from bears and wolves, defending territory and food from other mountain lions, disease, and injury, generally from attacking large prey. In most populations human-caused mortality, including hunting, is a significant source of mortality. However, in urban areas human-caused mortality generally comes from vehicle collisions and management-related removals due to human conflict. Management removals can occur from pet or livestock depredation or from direct conflict with humans.
Characteristics and Habits
Mountain lions are adaptable to a wide range of habitat, essentially occupying most areas that provide sufficient hiding cover and large prey such as deer and elk. Females occupy relatively large territories (about thirty-eight square miles) that overlap with the territory of other, sometimes related, females. Males occupy larger territories (more than 115 square miles) that are generally exclusive from other males. Younger individuals (about one and one-half to two-years-old) are generally transient, moving throughout these areas searching for new territory. Almost all males leave the area where they were born, moving distances of thirty-eight to seventy-seven miles and sometimes much longer. Some females disperse as well, but distances are much shorter, ranging from seven and one-half to eleven and one-half miles.
The majority of a mountain lion’s diet consists of deer, elk, and other large mammals. In urban areas mountain lions will take other small prey, including livestock and pets, especially during late spring. Lions “cache” their deceased prey, burying it in ground litter to reduce scavenging, and consume it over several days.
As with all large carnivores, human interaction with mountain lions can raise public concern. Humans tend to have some innate fear of mountain lions, although aggressive encounters remain rare. As mountain lion habitat has been increasingly encroached upon by humans, and human recreational use of these habitats has increased in Colorado, so have the number of mountain lion interactions. These incidents can range from a chance sighting to a close encounter to depredation on pets or an attack. Evidence suggests that mountain lions are generally afraid of people and will avoid direct contact; most interactions are a surprise for both sides.
However, there have been occasions when mountain lions, usually adolescents, have followed people over some distance. Mountain lion behavior toward small children is very different, with children sometimes eliciting a prey response. Human injuries from mountain lion attacks, however, are extremely rare.
Still, mountain lion attacks have increased in recent decades as human populations have expanded into traditional mountain lion habitats. From 1890 to 1990 there were nine documented fatal attacks and fifty-four non-fatal attacks on humans in the United States and Canada, but between 1991 and 2003 there were seven fatal and thirty-eight non-fatal attacks. Unsurprisingly, the upsurge in attacks corresponds to a large increase in human-mountain lion incidents, likely due to habitat reduction, increased recreational activity, and possible increases in mountain lion populations.