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Mountain Lions

Mountain lions go by many different names including cougar, puma, catamount, deer tiger, Klandagi, and so on. So many names for the same cat. This is due in part to their nature. Being highly adaptable, mountain lions can live anywhere from the mountains, to deserts, and even deep within the rainforest. In fact, they are the widest ranging terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Because of their adaptability, they encountered many different peoples throughout the Americas. Before the arrival of European settlers, their range extended to the east coast in North America. Unfortunately, social intolerance of predators led to heavy persecution which resulted in their extirpation from much of the United States. Today, mountain lions can be found throughout much of the West in the United States and in a small, isolated area in Florida.

Mountain lions are often perceived as an aggressive predator lurking in the shadows, however, this couldn't be further from the truth. They are, by nature, elusive and seek to avoid conflicts whenever possible. Consider this for a moment:  how many people recreate in mountain lion country every day without conflict? Incidents are few and far between That said, when conflicts do occur, they can have a lasting impact on the individual and are often sensationalized by the media. Fortunately, there are things that we can do to coexist with mountain lions.

Coexisting with mountain lions

 

What does ‘coexistence’ mean?

 

Coexistence means accepting responsibility for our actions when we live in or spend time in mountain lion country. Mountain lions pose little to no threat to humans, as well as our pets and other domestic animals, when we take simple but important steps to ensure mutual safety. Coexistence also means being tolerant when incidents do occur, and learning from these rare events so that we can reduce the chances of them happening again.

 

Coexistence

Why should we coexist with mountain lions?

 

Large carnivores have an outsized role in their ecosystems, and mountain lions are no exception to this rule. Mountain lions leave behind large portions of their kills which provides food for countless other species and helps cycle nutrients back into the soil. Mountain lions also prey on older, sicker and weaker individuals in deer and elk herds which can improve the overall population health for these species. With mountain lions around, deer and elk spend less time lingering in open areas such as along streams, which protects waterways from overgrazing and degradation. These benefits not only support wildlife and biodiversity, but people too. We all rely on healthy and vibrant wildlands for clean water, and many people rely directly on these places for food and fiber. In other words, we need large carnivores like mountain lions around.

 

Beyond their value to ecosystems and people, mountain lions are an impressive animal in their own right and certainly worthy of our respect and admiration. They have lived in North America for at least 200,000 years, persisting long after Saber-toothed Tigers and Wooly Mammoths went extinct. The success of mountain lions is made possible by their versatility and adaptability. They can live in deserts, forests, mountains and everywhere in between. Physically speaking, they are unparalleled. Mountain lions can leap up to 40 feet and occasionally prey on animals nearly four times their size, despite being solitary hunters. They also have complex social interactions and spend considerable time and energy caring for their young. We are lucky to live in a place with such a unique and fascinating animal.

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Trail Tips

Why do mountain lions occasionally come near people?

 

Mountain lions would prefer not to be around people. In fact, recent studies show that mountain lions tend to flee at the sound of human voices. However, our roads and homes continue to fragment their habitat, and many more people are spending time outdoors each year. For these reasons, we should not be surprised when an animal as mobile as a mountain lion, which spends the majority of its time roaming through a vast territory, crosses through places with people. We are in their habitat.

 

Most wildlife agencies, including Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, do not see a mountain lion coming close to or temporarily passing through an urban area as cause for concern. However, when mountain lions linger in or around urban areas, it usually has something to do with the behaviors and actions of people. The following are some of the things people do that can unintentionally cause mountain lions to enter urban areas and stick around.

 

  • Human-made water sources and irrigated plants bring prey species to town - Given that we are currently living in a drought, our irrigated lawns, gardens, golf courses and crops provide excellent forage for animals like deer, which are the natural prey of mountain lions. 

 

  • Humans insufficiently protect their pets and farm animals - Native carnivore species, including mountain lions, occasionally prey on domestic animals. These incidents are very rare, and usually the result of not taking simple steps to keep our animals safe. See our ‘Pets and Outdoor Animals’ section below for more information. 

 

  • Hunting disturbs mountain lion social structure - Consistent lethal removal of mountain lions by humans, whether for recreational hunting or predator control purposes, can disturb mountain lion social structure and result in more conflicts with people. Biologists hypothesize that this occurs because killing a mountain lion vacates its territory allowing younger mountain lions to move in. These younger individuals have not learned to avoid people. 

 

  • There are more opportunities to see mountain lions today than in the past - While the news may make it seem like mountain lion encounters are on the rise, it’s important to remember that there are more people going outside to recreate every year, and more people using doorbell and security cameras. Both of these trends mean that there are more opportunities to see mountain lions. This doesn’t mean the mountain lion population is increasing or becoming more bold around people. They are simply having a harder time avoiding our detection. 

 

Does killing mountain lions keep them from coming into conflict with people?

 

Generally speaking, it does not. First, it is challenging to locate the same mountain lion that caused a problem, so retaliatory killings can result in the wrong mountain lion being killed. Additionally, as mentioned, the act of killing a mountain lion vacates its territory which will soon be filled by another mountain lion, likely a younger individual with less experience and familiarity with the area. These replacement lions may be even more likely to cause problems. More importantly, if people are not changing the behaviors and actions that made the conflict more likely in the first place, incidents will continue to happen. 

At Home

Trail Tips

 

Preventing an encounter from happening on the trail

 

While in the great outdoors, the best thing you can do

to keep yourself and mountain lions safe is preventing

an encounter from happening in the first place. While

in mountain lion country, remember to:

 

  • Stay aware of your surroundings - Avoid wearing headphones and periodically scan your surroundings so you know what is around you. If you see wildlife, enjoy the sighting, but steer clear. 

 

  • Avoid times when mountain lions are most active - Mountain lions are most active at dusk, dawn and after dark. It’s best to avoid going hiking or biking during these times, especially since poor visibility makes it hard to stay aware of your surroundings.

 

  • Keep children and pets close - Use a leash for dogs and avoid letting children wander out of sight. They may not know what to do if they encounter wildlife, so it’s best to take responsibility and keep them close. 

 

  • Make your presence known - Make some noise periodically, especially if you are alone. This will alert wildlife to your presence so they can do what comes naturally and avoid you.

 

  • Do not inspect dead animals - Dead animals could be a cached kill of a mountain lion or other large carnivore, and they may return to feed. Additionally, other animals may scavenge on the kill, so it’s best to steer clear. 

 

What to do during a mountain lion encounter

 

Mountain lions do not view humans as prey, so simply seeing a mountain lion does not mean you are in danger. Understanding a lion's behavior is paramount. If you see a mountain lion, watch its body language. Ask yourself:

 

  • Is this a display of curiosity? Generally, a mountain lion just looking at you isn’t a display of threatening behavior. Their instincts tell them to not turn their back on predators, so they will probably stare at you until you are out of sight.

 

  • Is the lion trying to get away? If you bump into a mountain lion, it will likely be looking for an easy way out. It’s concerned for its own safety, so be sure to give it plenty of space to escape.

 

  • Is this defensive behavior? Mountain lions occasionally do something called a ‘bluff charge’ where they run at you but stop short of attacking. If a mountain lion does a bluff charge, it may have kittens nearby and is trying to scare you away.

 

  • Is this aggressive behavior? Similar to a house cat, if the mountain lion is facing you with a crouched/hunched stance with its tail twitching, it could be about to attack. 

 

It is very rare for mountain lions to act aggressively towards people. However, no matter what behavior you are seeing, it’s best to remove yourself from the situation as safely as possible by following these steps:

 

  • Do not run - This can trigger a mountain lion’s natural instinct to chase, so stand your ground and face the mountain lion.

 

  • Maintain eye contact - Mountain lions are less likely to pursue something that is aware of their presence. Show them you are aware.

 

  • Keep children and pets close - Children and pets may dart and dash, which can also trigger a mountain lion to chase. Keep them close or pick them up. 

 

  • Talk loudly or yell - This shows you are not to be messed with, and alerts other people to what is happening so they can help. 

 

  • Make yourself appear large - This also shows that you are not to be messed with. Raise your hands above your head or open up the flaps of your jacket and hold them above your head.

 

  • Throw sticks, rocks, etc. - This intimidates the mountain lion, but don’t stoop down or break eye contact to pick up these objects. 

 

  • If attacked, fight back - Even if a mountain lion charges or starts attacking, stand your ground and fight back. Many have escaped attacks by punching and kicking.

 

If the mountain lion is far away and not exhibiting any interest in you, there's no harm in enjoying such a rare sighting. As with all wildlife, respect the animal's boundaries, keep a safe distance, observe their behavior and give them an escape route so they have an unobstructed way to leave, and never approach them or their offspring.

 

DO NOT FILM - During an encounter, the only good use of your phone is as a projectile - Do not document an encounter with a smartphone or camera. Doing so makes it hard to follow the steps outlined above, such as appearing large or maintaining eye contact. Moreover, think of how the public will perceive what you post online. Recent filmed encounters in Utah show that stories of mountain lion encounters are often sensationalized, portraying the cats as mean or aggressive when they may simply be defending their young. 

 

Best Practices for Your Backyard

 

As mentioned previously, mountain lions occasionally pass through urban areas. The best thing we can do is discourage them from lingering. The following are steps you can take to make your backyard uninviting to a mountain lion so that it only passes through an urban area, rather than lingering. 

 

  • Reduce hiding places - Trim low hanging branches and shrubs, cover up crawl spaces (such as beneath your porch) and remove debris piles. As a stalk and ambush predator, mountain lions are less inclined to hang out in places where they can’t easily hide.

 

  • Reduce food sources - Avoid storing pet food or animal feed outside, thoroughly clean barbeque grills and other outdoor food preparation areas, keep compost piles contained, remove carved pumpkins before they rot, and keep gardens or other plants that are attractive to animals contained with fencing or taste/smell deterrents. All of these food sources can attract animals that mountain lions may see as prey.

 

  • Install deterrents - Motion-activated lights, sounds and sprinklers can help spook animals that come into your yard so they don't linger or see it as part of their habitat. Consider looking up these items online and finding one that works for you. 

 

  • Talk with your neighbors - Once you have implemented these steps, share what you do with your neighbors and encourage them to take these steps too. It's much more effective to act collectively than on your own.

 

Pets and Outdoor Animals

 

Whether you live in a rural area, on the outskirts of town, or in the heart of a city, it is always a good idea to take steps that ensure the safety of your pets or other domestic animals. The following are some tips for being mindful with animals in mountain lion country.

 

  • Exercise caution when walking or letting out dogs at night - From dusk to dawn, it’s always best to avoid leaving dogs outdoors unless they are fully contained in a dog run or kennel. When letting dogs out for bathroom breaks at night, turn on lights and monitor them closely. Better yet, keep them on a leash and go out with them. When walking your dog between dusk and dawn or in places that may have mountain lions, keep them leashed.

 

  • Try to keep cats indoors, especially at night - Outdoor cats can decimate bird populations, and they can occasionally become a prey item for a desperate mountain lion or other wild animals. Avoid letting cats live outside, or if they are an outdoor-indoor cat, keep them in at night by locking their cat door. 

 

  • Keep chickens and other permanent backyard animals in a secure enclosure - Mountain lions will occasionally prey on chickens and other small domestic animals that have to be kept outside if they are not in a fully secure enclosure. Such an enclosure should have a roof, four walls, and ideally something to keep animals from digging into the enclosure (mountain lions won’t dig, but foxes and other wild animals can). If you are not using a secure enclosure, consider looking online for a better option or a way to retrofit your existing enclosure. Even if you have free range animals, make sure they are back in the enclosure and locked up at night.

 

  • Goats and sheep - Just like any other domestic animal, goats and sheep need to be protected at night. The best protection for these animals is to keep them in a barn, fully enclosed pen, or a trailer from dusk until dawn. If you cannot keep them secure in an enclosure, there are a variety of other deterrents you can use. Putting fox lights or flagging on a fence can deter some predators, as well as motion-activated lights and sounds. You might also consider getting a livestock guardian dog.

 

Best Practices for Reporting on Mountain Lions

 

Unfortunately, many media portrayals of mountain lion sightings and encounters tend to sensationalize the species, making mountain lions out to be aggressive and dangerous. In reality, research demonstrates that mountain lions avoid people as much as possible, and the incidents that do occur are often preventable.

 

Those who convey information about mountain lions to the public have a responsibility to help people understand the species. Sightings, encounters and incidents involving mountain lions should not be used as an excuse to make an inflammatory story that causes fear. Remember, we live near mountain lion habitat, so our words and actions can have real world impacts on how the cats are perceived and treated. Sightings and encounters should be used as an opportunity to teach coexistence and inspire interest in the species, not used to instill fear.

 

Below are some tips for anyone reporting on mountain lion sightings or encounters such as in print/online newspapers, blogs or on social media.  

 

What to do when reporting on mountain lion sightings or encounters:

 

  • Clarify the details before publishing - It’s always best to get details about a mountain lion sighting or encounter directly from the people involved or from a professional wildlife manager who is familiar with what happened. 

 

  • Use terms that accurately portray what happened - ‘Sighting’ usually refers to simply seeing a mountain lion from a distance, whereas ‘encounter’ means someone came close enough to a mountain lion that it warranted practicing any of the tips mentioned in the ‘During a mountain lion encounter’ section above. The word ‘incident’ implies harm, so this term should only be used for events that involved unusual behavior or actual harm.

 

  • Acknowledge the probability of harm - There have been approximately 27 lethal mountain lion attacks on people in North America since 1900. By contrast, over 200 people die per year from collisions with deer on roadways. Remember, for the very few sightings or encounters that lead to an attack, there are far more sightings and encounters that ended in no harm being done to a person. By not acknowledging this reality, it can be easy for people to assume that mountain lions pose a significant danger.

 

  • Seize the educational opportunity - Using the information on this webpage, assess what went well during a sighting or encounter and acknowledge it. Then assess what could have gone better and give some tips that could be used next time if someone found themselves in a similar situation. If you are unsure what did or did not go well, feel free to contact info@utahmountainlion.org.

 

  • Report proactively, not just reactively - Rather than reporting only on sightings or encounters, consider running a proactive piece that discusses mountain lion coexistence or mountain lion biology and behavior. Most people love wildlife, so a story on mountain lions will likely be popular and inspire people to learn and care about living alongside these magnificent animals. 

 

What not to do when reporting on mountain lion sightings or encounters:

 

  • Embellishing the details - Some stories about mountain lion sightings or encounters include extra details to make the event sound more intense or dangerous than it actually was. Don’t use mountain lions as click bait. Embellishing the details only serves to provoke fear, which can lead to bad outcomes for the cats. Relatedly, during interviews, avoid leading questions that are likely to lead to embellishment, such as “how scared were you?” Instead, consider asking “what was it like to see a mountain lion?”

 

  • Implying that mountain lions hunt humans - Some reporting on mountain lion sightings or encounters will say that the mountain lion ‘stalked’, ‘hunted’, or ‘tracked’ a person. This is almost never the case. The vast majority of sightings and encounters involve humans or mountain lions running into each other by chance, or because people have put themselves in higher risk situations by not practicing prevention/coexistence. 

 

  • Conflating multiple sightings with a trend - When reporting on repeated sightings or encounters in an area, avoid calling it a trend. This implies that mountain lions are making conscious decisions to come close to people, when it is usually one or very few mountain lions, and they are returning repeatedly because we have not taken steps to remove an easy food source. Focus on the solutions that people can implement, not a perceived problem or trend with mountain lions.

 

  • Leaving out important information on prevention/coexistence - If a story on mountain lion sightings or encounters simply covers what happened, the educational opportunity has been missed. Always remember to include information on prevention/coexistence, especially tips that are relevant to the specific situation you are reporting on. 

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