Animal Life in the Yosemite
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NORTHWESTERN MOUNTAIN LION Felis oregonensis oregonensis Rafinesque

Field characters.—Appearance cat-like; size of a mastiff dog; tail long and slender; head and body about 4 feet, tail about 3-1/2 feet; ear about 3-1/2 inches; weight, adult males about 135 pounds, adult females about 100 pounds. Coloration rich reddish brown above; chin and throat and middle of under surface white; outer sides of ears, nose, feet, and end of tail blackish. There is also a 'gray' phase where the pelage is grayish brown rather than reddish brown. Tracks: cat-like, usually wider than long, 3 to 4-1/2 inches across; heel pad wide.

Occurrence.—Resident in moderate numbers on west slope of Sierra Nevada, chiefly in Upper Sonoran, Transition and Canadian zones. Lives in both brushy and forested country. Usually solitary.

The Northwestern Mountain Lion, which is also known as cougar, panther, and puma, is the second largest carnivorous mammal in the Yosemite region, being exceeded in size only by the bears. The Mountain Lion is large and strong enough, no doubt, to prey upon human beings if it so chose; but instead of being the terror of the country, as are lions and big cats in other parts of the world, our lion has practically never been known to attack a person, and indeed very seldom does it come to notice at all. Many persons, even woodsmen and hunters, long resident in regions where Mountain Lions occur, have never so much as caught sight of one. And in spite of the hundreds and even thousands of persons who camp each summer in the mountains, no one has been reported to have been molested by lions.

In general appearance the Mountain Lion, save for its far larger size, is much like a domestic cat. The head is short and massive, the forelegs are of heavy build, the body rather slender, and the tail long and cylindrical with an even covering of hair clear to the end, but with no 'tassel.' The Mountain Lion is several times the size of a large Mountain Coyote or a Sierra Nevada Wolverine. As to actual size we will cite, in the absence of carefully measured specimens from the Yosemite region, two typical individuals killed at a point farther north in the Sierra Nevada (Lynchburg, Placer County). The male measured 6 feet 6-1/4 inches from tip of nose to end of tail (excluding hairs), the tail was 2 feet 6-1/2 inches, and the ear 3-3/4 inches. It measured 28-1/2 inches in height at the shoulder and by two reliable observers was estimated to weigh about 134 pounds. The female measured 6 feet 4 inches over all, with tail 2 feet 6 inches, and ear 3-1/2 inches. Its height at shoulder was 27-1/2 inches, and estimates of weight were 95 to 100 pounds.

The range of the Mountain Lion in the Yosemite region is not so definitely bounded as that of many other species of mammals. In general the lions are to be found in the territory occupied by the Mule Deer, namely, the Canadian, Transition, and Upper Sonoran zones. There is to some extent, doubtless, a shifting of the lion's range in unison with the seasonal migrations of the deer. In the winter of 1915-16 Mr. Jay Bruce secured 11 lions in a rather limited tract of country near Wawona, and others were obtained by him in later years in the same region, a total of 31 being taken in the three winter seasons, 1915 to 1918. During the winter of 1915-16 at least 4 lions were obtained by other hunters in and about Hetch Hetchy Valley. Lions are noted not infrequently in the vicinity of the Dudley ranch on Smith Creek, east of Coulterville. Several individuals usually winter on Pilot Peak ridge where there are many deer. But Mountain Lions are likely to turn up at any point in the region. Thus, one was reported to have lived in the vicinity of Williams Butte, near Mono Lake, prior to 1910. And in 1920, about June 23, a lioness was shot under the road bridge across the Crocker-Hoffman canal halfway between Merced and Snelling, out in the San Joaquin Valley. Another is said to have been killed in the same locality a few days later. Lions are also said to have occurred at the "Three Buttes" on the plains south of Merced Falls.

The total population in the Yosemite section of an animal as stealthy in its habits as the Mountain Lion, is, as might be surmised, very difficult to estimate. Placing the number at one to a township (36 square miles), an average figure for an area well stocked with deer, there would be about 12 to 15 lions in our Yosemite section, and 20 to 25 in Yosemite National Park. These figures give the average population at a time when no intensive hunting has been done. With a total kill of 31 in three seasons in the Wawona district, the figures given are doubtless high. But these numbers may again be expected if efforts to destroy the animals be discontinued.

In 1918, and for some years subsequently, there was in the "zoo" in Yosemite Valley a female Mountain Lion which had been captured as a young kitten. Because of the interest which this individual excited among visitors to the Valley and because her record is the only bit of local information we have concerning the breeding of the Mountain Lion, we give her history and some notes on her habits in detail.

On April 27, 1918, Mr. Jay C. Bruce, now lion hunter for the California Fish and Game Commission, trailed and shot a female Mountain Lion in her lair in a rocky, brush-covered bluff about 3 miles north of Wawona. The den was among rocks, about 6 feet long and 2 feet wide, and was lined with pine needles. In the den were found 3 dusky spotted kittens, 2 females and a male, which were about the size of cottontail rabbits. Their eyes were just open and they were judged to be about ten days old. This is the litter mentioned in an article in California Fish and Game (vol. 4, 1918, pp. 152-153). The kittens were taken to Yosemite Valley where one of the females was successfully reared "on the bottle" by Mr. and Mrs. Gabriel Souvelewsky.

The authors saw this lioness in May, 1919, when she measured 30 inches from nose to base of tail and 21 inches from base to tip of tail, and weighed, by estimate, about 40 pounds. Her coloration was rich warm brown with small light tawny areas about the face. In a cage adjoining the one occupied by this native lion (Felis o. oregonensis) were two Rocky Mountain Lions (Felis o, hippolestes), from Yellowstone National Park. These were of paler, tawny yellow, coloration with whitish facial areas. They were of such a disagreeable disposition that their cage could be entered only with extreme caution. The Wawona lioness, on the other hand, was quite tame and permitted grown persons and even children to enter her cage freely. The animal was kitten-like in demeanor, romping with the children and chasing a ball in playful fashion. Whenever it struck, its claws were kept retracted so that a person would feel the impact of only the big furry paw. Once while several people were in the cage the cat jumped on the back of the junior author and the momentum, even at short range, was almost enough to cause him to lose his balance. Even in later years, we have been told, this individual still exhibited a high degree of tameness, although greater caution was exercised in entering her cage.

When the kitten sighted persons or animals at a distance it would gaze at them intently, meanwhile moving its big furry tail slowly from side to side. Children in particular seemed to hold its attention. It was surprising to note the distance at which the lioness caught sight of moving objects. This suggested a reason for the fact that Mountain Lions arc seldom seen by people—the lions see the people first and quickly take themselves off.

The captive animal was most active during the morning and evening hours. The mid-day usually found her drowsy. One of our visits was at dusk when the lioness was very active and keenly alert to all that was going on. In this connection it may be recalled that Mule Deer are most active in the early and late hours of the day.

The preferred food of the Mountain Lion is deer. Whenever evidence of a reliable nature has been obtained it points to the fact that the deer contributes by far the largest portion of the lion's fare. The current estimate is at least one deer a week for each adult or sub-adult lion. The lion stealthily creeps up within a short distance of the deer, then with a few quick bounds, reaches its quarry and strikes it down. Sometimes a large portion of the deer is eaten, at others, only a small part is taken. The lion may or may not return to its kill for a subsequent meal. Sometimes only flesh is eaten, sometimes the internal organs are partly devoured. In one winter the carcasses of 20 deer killed by lions were found in a limited area near Wawona. Four were seen on one day in an area a half-mile square.

Assuming that each lion kills on the average one deer a week, a total of 1250 deer a year are killed in the Park. Does have one or two fawns at birth so that about 800 does would be required to provide the annual supply of venison for these lions. As there are deaths among the deer from other causes, the total population of breeding does in the Park must be well above the number mentioned to hold the deer population at its present numbers. The ratio between males and females in the Mule Deer we do not know. An estimate of the total deer population is not possible with the data at hand; but there is no indication of decrease during the past six or seven years. We seem safe in assuming that during this period the lions present have not levied upon the deer population in excess of the deer's recuperative powers.

Smaller game is resorted to at times by Mountain Lions. One resident near Smith Creek told of seeing a young lion killing a ground squirrel. An instance of a lion in the Yosemite section feeding upon skunk has already been reported in print by Mr. Donald D. McLean (California Fish and Game, vol. 3, 1917, p. 39). The circumstances of capturing this lion were later recounted to the senior author in person by Mr. John L. McLean, as follows:

On November 8, 1916, Mr. McLean, senior, was riding on horseback along the road about 8 miles east of Coulterville. His shepherd dog was scouting along the adjacent sidehill through the manzanita and ceanothus brush. At one place there was a strong odor of skunk, and shortly the dog began to bark in tones which indicated that he had treed something. Mr. McLean rode to the spot and found up in a golden oak what he at first thought was a bob-cat. Parenthetically, it may be stated that both of the cats (Lynx and Felis) in this region, when seeking safety, climb into golden oaks, probably because the dense foliage of these trees affords better shelter than does that of other trees. Presently Mr. McLean saw a long tail hanging below a limb and realized that the animal was a Mountain Lion. Promptly he shot it, the rifle ball passing through the lion's neck. The animal "smelled powerfully" of skunk, and later its stomach was found to contain flesh, skin, and black-and-white hair of a striped skunk. This item of food may have been chosen in extremity, though this lion was fat. It measured 5 feet 2 inches in length and weighed 37-1/2 pounds.


Animal Life in the Yosemite
©1924, University of California Press
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

grinnell/mammals30.htm — 19-Jan-2006