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The sound was difficult to describe-a growl, a rumble, like pieces of gravel grating together-but it was nearby, out there, in the dark. Just once and then nothing. In the morning my suspicions were confirmed when I found the large, rounded, cat-like tracks. Mountain lion.
That is the way mountain lions have traveled through much of recorded history: elusive, mysterious, appearing briefly somewhere out in the deepest wilderness and
leaving behind only a track, a pile of deer bones bleaching in the sun, or a glimpse of fur in the brush.
The mountain lion, or Felis concolor, “the cat of one color,” is the least-known large mammal on the continent. Even in this age of radiotelemetry and computerized satellite mapping, some experts will not even hazard a guess on how many mountain lions inhabit North America. It’s truly, as some people have called it, “the ghost cat.” Or at least it was until recently.
Montana, which had no confirmed attacks by mountain lions in its entire history prior to 1989, has since recorded as many as 24 incidents in a single year, including the 1989 death of a 5-year-old boy and several attacks in Glacier National Park. Big Bend National Park, located in Texas, enjoyed its first 40 years of existence without a mountain lion encounter, but there have been nearly a dozen since 1987. In fact, there have been more mountain lion attacks in the United States and Canada the past 20 years than in the preceding 60 years.
What is happening? A rising mountain lion population? More people heading to the backcountry? Better record keeping?
“We now have computers in many of the remote stations and standardized forms for cougar sightings, so that could be part of it,” says Bruce Moorehead, a wildlife biologist at Olympic National Park, Washington, where sightings and attacks are on the rise. But the definitive answer, like the creature itself, is elusive.
The mountain lion is something of a paradox: graceful, moving through even rough terrain as silently as wind over snow, yet capable of bursts of frighteningly brutal power. The body length of adults ranges from 42 to 55 inches, with a 30- to 36-inch tail. Weight varies between 80 pounds for a small female to 220 pounds for a large male. Pound for pound, the mountain lion is the most lethal of all big cats, capable of bringing down creatures six times its size. Although most usually feed on deer, one ambitious cat weighing 200 pounds killed an 800-pound cow, then dragged it 100 yards into the brush before feeding. In another instance, a lion killed and dragged a 560-pound heifer up a mountainside.
Such a violent life can take its toll on the hunter, though. Many older lions show the scars of being gored by antlers. In 1985 a ranger in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park discovered a bizarre sight: a mountain lion beneath a mangled bull elk, apparently crushed by the weight of the very animal it had killed. For the most part, though, the mountain lion picks on animals its own size or smaller, like mule deer and rabbits. A healthy lion consumes the equivalent of one deer every one to four weeks.
The mountain lion’s success as a hunter has made it the most widespread large predator on the continent, with a range that stretches from the southern Yukon to Mexico and over to Florida. Depending on the region, it can be known as a mountain lion, cougar, catamount, panther, puma, or painter. Avid hunter Teddy Roosevelt called it “the big, horse-killing cat, the destroyer of deer, the lord of stealthy murder.”
Its killing prowess has earned it fear and hatred among hunters, ranchers, and others. For decades mountain lions had a price on their heads, and bounty hunters were only too happy to oblige; 3,219 bounties were paid in Washington between 1936 and 1961, and 3,581 in Oregon. In California, 12,500 big cats were killed between 1907 and 1972 for either bounty or sport. Mountain lions were even targeted in the usually protective confines of national parks, with 111 killed in Wyoming’s Yellowstone from 1894 to 1914.
Times have changed, though, and now most western states regulate mountain lion hunting, except Texas, where it’s still shoot on sight. (In California efforts are underway to repeal Proposition 117, which was passed by voters in 1990 and awarded cougars protected status.) Add to the equation better protection of the animal’s habitat, an abundance of prey, and the public’s more tolerant view of predators, and you have growing mountain lion populations in some areas. Some educated guesses place the North American population at around 16,000. Young cats in these crowded areas are forced by territorial adults to search out new hunting grounds, which may be contributing to the recent spate of incidents involving humans.
“When there has been an incident, the first thing I ask is whether the person’s still alive,” says Kevin Hansen, author of Cougar: The American Lion and a noted big cat expert. “If the answer is yes, you can almost say for sure it was a young lion. They’re still learning, testing, unsure of themselves.” The older, more mature lions, on the other hand, have “evolved for millions of years to do one thing, kill. They’re very efficient.”
“Young lions have one characteristic that’s important to remember,” says Raymond Skiles, wildlife specialist at Big Bend National Park, Texas. “They’re pushovers for intimidation. You can climb a tree with a young cat, or climb in a hole with one, and have nothing to fear as long as you show no fear.” It’s this lack of self-confidence, experts say, a hiker should exploit if attacked.
Which is easier said than done, considering that a run-in with a big cat can be one of life’s most frightening experiences. Just ask Mario Troche. While fishing with a friend along Washington’s Skookumchuck River in summer 1993, Troche heard a twig crack. “I turned around and all of a sudden there was this cat,” he says, “a big female with a head the size of a volleyball and forearms as big as my calves.” She wasn’t alone. A young male cat was perched on a nearby log.
When the second cougar approached to within 6 feet, its tail twitching, Troche, who works for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, figured he had two options: jump into the rocky river or stand his ground. He picked up his fishing pole and started swinging. “I hit him in the face but that didn’t faze him,” recounts Troche. Only when Troche’s companion began pelting the cougar with rocks did the pair of cats retreat into the woods.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of an attack, according to Troche and others who have had similar encounters, is the feeling of having been stalked. “Grizzly encounters often involve bears going after people’s food,” says John Phelps, predator biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “In mountain lion incidents, the people are the food. By the time you see the mountain lion, it has seen you for some time and you’re already on its list.”
It sounds scary, but before canceling that upcoming trip to the backcountry, let’s put things in perspective. Mountain lions rarely kill humans; there have been only 14 deaths since 1890. “It’s still greater than a million to one shot that you’ll run into an aggressive mountain lion out there,” says Phelps. “You have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning, yet you don’t see people walking around with lightning rods sticking out of their packs.”
The recent rise in attacks has spurred renewed pressure to loosen the restrictions on hunting as a way to stem what some see as a boom in mountain lion numbers. But Hansen warns against generalizations. “It’s tricky talking about mountain lion numbers because there’s no such thing as one population of lions. There are many populations, fragmented and isolated. One population may be doing fine while another is in big trouble. When people say lions are doing fine, the next question should be, ‘Where?'”
Even some of those whose lives have been tragically altered by the big cats don’t see hunting as the answer. In 1991 Todd Lancaster lost his 18 year-old brother to a mountain lion in Colorado. “The loss was painful, I won’t deny that. But I could not and will not take offense against the animal kingdom.” Despite his encounter, Mario Troche still fishes and hikes, and holds no malice. “The place we were was specifically set aside for wildlife,” he says. “The cats belong there, in the wild places.”