Mountain lions, also known as cougars of pumas, are large powerful predators at the top of the food chain. Adult mountain lions vary in weight from 85-120 pounds for females to 120-180 pounds for males, and may reach seven to eight feet in length from their nose to the tip of their tail. Mountain lions typically are two to three feet high at the shoulder. Adults are tawny colored with a dark tip on the end of their tail. Young lions, called kittens or cubs, have spots that fade through their first year of life.
Mountain lions were once the most widely distributed land mammal in the western hemisphere, ranging from northern British Columbia to the southern tip of South America. Found in nearly every state before Europeans settled here, mountain lions are now restricted primarily to the western states and a remnant population in Florida.
Mountain lions were first killed for a bounty beginning in 1879. In 1971 they were classified as a game animal by the Montana legislature and as a result lions have regained much of their historical distribution in Montana, except on the open prairies.
As demonstrated by a once vast geographical range, the mountain lion is a very adaptive and effective predator. In Montana, and throughout the western United States, the mountain lion's primary prey species are deer and elk. Prey also include almost all of Montana's big game animals and mice, rabbits, beaver, grouse, and occasionally domestic pets and livestock. The lion is even one of the only predators the well-defended porcupine worries about.
Mountain lions customarily take down prey many times their own size. It is not unusual for a 100-pound mountain lion to kill a 400-pound elk. Lions silently stalk or ambush their unsuspecting prey, most often with a short sprint, attacking from behind.
Lions feeding on a kill are potentially dangerous and should never be approached. A feeding lion in defense of food may suddenly become aggressive. Lions cover unconsumed portions of their kills with soil and litter. These food caches should also be avoided by humans.
Mountain lions are most active at dusk and dawn when their prey is active, but they do travel at any time of the day or night. Lions have special adaptation for seeing at night and are easily blinded when caught in a passing headlight or flashlight.
Mountain lions are semi-territorial. Adults stake out a home range by leaving scent in "scrapes" along the boundaries. A scrape is a four to six inch mound of dirt and forest litter pulled together where the cat deposits urine and dung. This marking system is the way lions tell other lions that the area is already occupied and should be avoided. In this way, territories can be defended more by mutual avoidance rather than by aggressive defense of space.
A typical male territory in Montana is usually more than 100 square miles, while a female's territory is usually less than 50 square miles. Subadult lions may not be able to immediately find an unoccupied territory. In these cases, subadults become transient, covering very large areas in search of an unoccupied territory.
Females first breed at about two years of age, and generally not until they have established a territory. The gestation period is 92 days long. Lions give birth at about two-year intervals. While lions will breed at any time of year, most litters in Montana are born during the warmer months. This is also the time young lions, one to two years of age, are becoming independent. Littermates may travel together for months before separating. This fact may explain why it is not uncommon to see these normally solitary creatures traveling together.