Nature Notes

Ashford, Washington

Vol. II October-November, 1984 No. 6

Nature Notes is issued bimonthly by the Naturalist Staff of Mount Rainier National Park. Material contained herein may be used freely in any manner, provided credit is given to this pamphlet and the author.
William Dengler
Chief Naturalist
Neal G. Guse


Horror tales abounded about it. A President decried it as "craven and cruel." It goes by many names, some of which encourage the shroud of mystery. Mountain devil, mountain screamer, ghost cat, and Indian devil are a few of the labels given to Felis concolor (cat all of the same color). In Washington we know it as a mountain lion or cougar (In Longmire Museum we know it as Charley), in the East they call it a panther or catamomt (cat of the mountain), in the Southwest they call it a red tiger or puma (of Incan origin), and some folks call it the long tailed cat.

It has earned regional names because it makes its home in so many different habitats. It lives from the Yukon to Patagonia, from coast to coast and adapts as easily to the swamps of the Everglades as to the deserts and our own Douglas fir forest.

Because it is a skilled hunter, it never has been too popular with human variety hunters. In 1885 Field and Stream Magazine argued that "for the sake of the deer supply, the panther should be systematically pursued and destroyed" and Teddy Roosevelt, one of the most outspoken of conservationists of his time, called it "the big horse-killing cat, the destroyer of deer, the lord of the stealthy murder facing his doom with a heart both craven and cruel. . ." Some cat!

Mountain lions were blamed for losses of domestic stock with people believing that cats could carry off a full grown cow or jump a 6' fence with a calf in its mouth.

Probably the tales that sent the most shudders down the spines of settlers were those of the "scream" of the cat. A posse in Missouri once went out to kill the maker of a horrendous scream, one that had to be from a huge mountain lion... and were a little surprised as a steam boat rounded the bend in the river. Although capable of a frightening scream-like call, two more common sounds of the cougar are a bird-like whistle (a parrot according to one naturalist) in normal communication with a high-pitched growl during breeding.

With such a reputation, it's hardly surprising that the mountain lion was classified as a "predator" in most states which meant "shoot on sight." It was, and so successfully that the entire population east of the Rockies was nearly wiped out by 1900. Today there is a small, intensively studied population in South Florida. Recent cat-sightings from Maine to Louisiana, with many in the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, suggest that the panther may be making a comeback in certain areas, but evidence is still sketchy.

No doubt there are lots of mountain lions in the west -- some estimates say up to 11,000 with up to 1,500 in Washington, but sightings of the ghost cat are rare. Like most ghosts, the mountain lion walks at night, but day sightings are not unheard of.

In 1983 there were several sightings in the Carbon River area, two of them by the same lucky hiker on different days. More often though, hikers see the large (3" x 3", possibly larger) tracks in the snow or mud in less-traveled parts of the park. A mountain lion makes alot of tracks on an average night, regularly trotting a 20-30 mile marathon.

The cat is usually in search of deer or elk, but will be satisfied with raccoon, rabbit, armadillo, birds, even grasshoppers and slugs! If the kill is not consumed at once, it will be covered and cached. A deer will often last a week. Needless to say, strong claws and teeth, as well as swift and silent movements make the mountain lion one of the finest of hunters.

An average male grows to be 7' long, females about 6', with weights between 150-200 pounds. The long tail sets this cat apart from all other American cats. It is actually as long as an African lion's tail despite the fact that its African cousin is twice as large. Mom has 1-3 black spotted kittens at any time of year and they stay with her until she is pregnant again, which may mean a 2 year family affair. A grown mountain lion varies in color from tan to grey to reddish brown.

The cat of many names is still perhaps the most elusive of park residents. To see the mountain lion's tracks, to hear its scream or to catch a glimpse of the animal is indeed a rare experience . . . a bit of the mystery unlocked . . . a brief encounter with wilderness.

Jane Poole

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