Cougars are one of the most reclusive, elusive, and stealthily creatures of the forests. Thus, they are rarely seen by people. Usually a tawny-light brownish color, they may also be gray or reddish. They are large cats, statistically the fourth largest of the feline family, behind lions, tigers, and jaguars. Males may weigh up to 250 lbs, while females usually weigh between 75 and 100 lbs.
The cougar prefers habitats with dense underbrush and clear rocky areas for stalking. Cougars of Olympic National Park tend to live in the mountains and forests. The cougar is a very territorial animal and persists at low population densities. Though the cougar population is uncertain, there is definite evidence of their existence. Territorial scratch mounds and tracks can be found on the backcountry trails throughout the park.
Cougars sit, along with black bears, at the top of the food chain. They prey mainly on elk and deer, but may also eat smaller mammals and rodents.
Remember, if you see a cougar, do NOT approach it! Though cougar attacks are rare, these animals may react if they feel threatened. It is important to to read the Cougar Safety brochure (pdf) for information about how to react if you encounter a cougar. If you happen to see a cougar, call the nearest ranger station or headquarters to report your sighting, or 911 if it is an emergency.
Role in the Ecosystem:
As an apex, or top, predator, cougars are a vital part of what keeps life in Olympic balanced. Cougars are strict carnivores, generally hunting large game such as deer and elk. The success of these hunts helps to keep the population of these other species from getting out of control. With fewer animals to graze the grasses and browse the trees, our forests and fields are able to grow healthy and lush. In areas where apex predators, like cougars, have been removed, overgrazing of vegetation leads to a variety of issues for the environment. The lack of grasses and woody trees can cause erosion of the forest floor and lack of ample nutrition for wildlife as far too many animals push the limits for food availability.
What's in a Name?:
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so too do wild cats. While commonly referred to as cougars on the Olympic Peninsula, these cats have a long list of names they are known by. Mountain lions, pumas, panthers, painters, catamounts, and ghost cats are actually all the same animal! Some nicknames, like "Ghost Cat", describe the characteristics of the animal, as they slink silently through the forest while prowling for food. Other names, such as "Mountain Lion", are a bit of a misnomer, as cougars do not live strictly in mountainous areas, nor are they true lions. Compared to the African lion, the American mountain lion does not have a mane, and they cannot even roar!