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Biology & Behavior: Mountain Lions can survive in a variety of habitats, including high mountains, deserts, and swamps. Human activity has encouraged Mountain Lions to retreat to the rugged terrain that remains largely uninhabited by humans. Mountain Lion habitat must provide an adequate prey base as well as cover for hunting.

The vision of the Mountain Lion is one of the animal’s most important adaptations for hunting. The animal’s eyes are quite large, and the retina contains more rods than cones, lending to the cat’s excellent night vision. Although Mountain Lions cannot see in complete darkness, they can discern details in much lower light than humans.

In addition to its’ excellent vision, the Mountain Lion has extremely sensitive hearing. This is also an important tool for hunting in low light. Lions can detect high frequency sounds that allow them to detect hidden prey. By comparison, Mountain Lions have a weak sense of smell. This is the trade-off cats made millions of years ago. Evolving short muzzles increased biting power, but decreased the sense of smell.

Mountain Lions are known as ambush hunters. The lion waits patiently in dense vegetation or rock crevices for prey to wander by. Then, silent stalking of the prey is followed by a quick surprise attack by the powerful cat. A popular myth is that Mountain Lions jump out of trees or off of cliffs to attack their prey. In actuality they may leap from a high hiding place to build up speed for the attack, but at the point of impact, they keep their hind legs on the ground for balance and, if necessary, a quick escape. When attacking large animals, Mountain Lions go for the neck. Their jaws are powerful enough to break the neck of a deer or smaller animal. Alternatively when attacking larger animals such as elk or even horses, Mountain Lions choose to clamp down on the windpipe, strangling the victim. While deer is their preferred food throughout their range, Mountain Lions also feed on mice, ground squirrels, rabbits, skunks, porcupines, and birds.

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One lion can consume up to 20 or 30 pounds of meat in a single meal. After feeding on its kill, the lion will cache the prey, or bury it in a secluded spot. The Mountain Lion will return to feed on the prey for up to 10 days.

The range of a Mountain Lion may cover 25 to 785 square miles. Here in southern Utah, lions have been known to occupy home ranges as large as 513 square miles. The size of a lion’s territory depends on the availability of food and habitat quality. Mountain Lions are solitary animals, only seeking company during the breeding season.

Mountain Lions are capable of breeding at any time during the year. In the west, it has been discovered that the kittens are usually born during June or July. During the breeding season, the famous scream of the female lion may be heard. This scream is used to attract the male lion. After the female chooses her mate, the two lions will remain together for several days, hunting and playing until the female is ready to mate. After approximately three months, the kittens will be born. The female will choose a den, which could be a rock overhang, shallow cave or area of dense vegetation, as a secure place to give birth.

Mountain Lion kittens are born with a spotted coat and bright blue eyes. The spots disappear after 6-9 months, and the eyes turn yellow within 16 months. Weighing in at about one pound at birth, the kittens grow rapidly. After eight weeks of nursing, the kittens will weigh about 30 pounds. Lion kittens begin to eat meat at the age of six weeks. After 18 months, the immature lions usually leave their mother to begin life on their own.

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Life is tough for juvenile lions. Dominant males may kill juveniles within their territories, so often juveniles must eke out a living in marginal habitat. This can ultimately lead to starvation or encounters with humans. Even in California where Mountain Lions are protected from hunting, 75% of the kittens do not live to be two years old.

Conservation Issues: Originally, Mountain Lions roamed throughout North and South America. Today in North America, lion populations are limited to British Columbia, Alberta, the twelve westernmost states in the U.S., and the Florida Everglades.

Bounty hunting of Mountain Lions began as early as the 1600s in North America. Early settlers feared the Mountain Lions, and believed that the lions, as well as wolves and bears, had a negative effect on game populations. By the 1900s these predators had been killed in astonishing numbers, with a disastrous effect on the ecosystem in some areas. 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.

Bounty hunting continued across the nation until the 1960s, when efforts began to preserve environmental health. Mountain Lions survived the persecution better than other predators, yet Mountain Lion populations have not been restored in many areas.

People are not always eager to help predator populations recover. Livestock losses are a source of concern because individual Mountain Lions have been documented wantonly killing dozens of sheep in a single night. As widely publicized as these accounts are, they do not occur regularly. However, because Mountain Lions are such successful predators (they can just as easily kill a bull elk as a domestic sheep), as long as there are plenty of deer for them to hunt they tend to leave livestock alone.

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As a rule, Mountain Lions avoid people and signs of people, but in recent years, Mountain Lion attacks on humans have become a serious source of controversy. Although attacks on humans are extremely rare, the attacks have increased over the past few decades. As in most livestock depredations, the Mountain Lion that attacks a person is usually a hunger-crazed juvenile that has been pushed into marginal habitat by more dominant males. But it is human encroachment into Mountain Lion territory that creates marginal Mountain Lion habitat. As more people are recreating and living in rural areas, the chance of an encounter with these secretive animals is more likely. Nevertheless, by taking some precautions humans and Mountain Lions can coexist.

In the event that you encounter an aggressive Mountain Lion:

  • Maintain eye contact, and never turn away from the lion.
  • Stand up straight, with arms above your head in order to appear larger.
  • Back away very slowly in case the lion is guarding a kill or her den.
  • If the lion approaches, throw rocks or sticks and yell at the animal.
  • If the lion does attack, fight back. Unlike surviving a bear attack, if you play dead with a Mountain Lion, you will be.
  • Remember above all DO NOT RUN! No cat can resist the instinct to give chase.
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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>