The cougar (Puma concolor), also known as mountain lion, is the one of the largest cats in North America and a top predator native to Greater Yellowstone. (The jaguar, which occurs in New Mexico and Arizona, is larger.) As part of predator-removal campaigns in the early 1900s, cougars and wolves were killed throughout the lower 48 states, including national parks. Wolves (Canis lupus) were eradicated and, although cougars were probably eliminated from Yellowstone, the species survived in the West because of its cryptic nature and preference for rocky, rugged territory where the cats are difficult to track. Eventually the survivors re-established themselves in Yellowstone in the early 1980s, possibly making their way from wilderness areas in central Idaho.
Prior to wolf reintroduction (1987–1993), Yellowstone National Park’s northern range was occupied year-round by an estimated 15 to 22 cougars, including adults, subadults, and kittens. There were 26–42 cougars estimated after wolf establishment (1998–2005). In 2014, a new study began which seeks to estimate population abundance in the same region using noninvasive genetic survey methods. Several field seasons will be required before a population estimate can be generated. However, preliminary evidence from 2014–17 indicates a healthy population still exists in numbers comparable to a decade ago.
While disease and starvation are occasional causes of cougar deaths, competition with other cougars or predators, and human hunting (during legal seasons outside protected areas) are the main causes of cougar mortality. Habitat fragmentation and loss are the main long-term threats to cougar populations across the western United States.
Cougars live throughout the park in summer, but few people ever see them. The northern range of Yellowstone is prime habitat for cougars because snowfall is light and prey always available. Cougars follow their main prey as they move to higher elevations in summer and lower elevations in the winter.
Adult male cougars are territorial and may kill other adult males in their home range. Male territories may overlap with several females. In non-hunted populations, such as in Yellowstone, the resident adult males living in an area the longest are the dominant males. These males sire most of the litters within a population; males not established in the same area have little opportunity for breeding.
Although cougars may breed and have kittens at any time of year, most populations have a peak breeding and birthing season. In Yellowstone, males and females breed primarily from February through May. Males and females without kittens search for one another by moving throughout their home ranges and communicating through visual and scent markers called scrapes. A female’s scrape conveys her reproductive status. A male’s scrape advertises his presence to females and warns other males that an area is occupied. After breeding, the males leave the female.
In Yellowstone, most kittens are born June through September. Female cougars den in a secure area with ample rock and/or vegetative cover. Kittens are about one pound at birth and gain about one pound per week for the first 8–10 weeks. During this time, they remain at the den while the mother makes short hunting trips and then returns to nurse her kittens. When the kittens are 8– 10 weeks old, the female begins to hunt over a larger area. After making a kill, she moves the kittens to the kill. Before hunting again, she stashes the kittens. Kittens are rarely involved in killing until after their first year.
Most kittens leave their area of birth at 14 to 18 months of age. Approximately 99% of young males disperse 50 to 400 miles; about 70–80% of young females disperse 20 to 150 miles. The remaining proportion of males and females establish living areas near where they were born. Therefore, most resident adult males in Yellowstone are immigrants from other areas, thus maintaining genetic variability across a wide geographic area.
In Yellowstone, cougars prey upon elk (mostly calves) and deer. They stalk the animal then attack, aiming for the animal’s back and killing it with a bite to the base of the skull or the throat area.
A cougar eats until full, then caches the carcass for later meals. Cougars spend an average of 3–4 days consuming an elk or deer and 4–5 days hunting for the next meal. Cougars catch other animals—including red squirrels, porcupines, marmots, grouse, and moose—if the opportunity arises.
Cougars are solitary hunters who face competition for their kills from other large mammals. Even though a cached carcass is harder to detect, scavengers and competitors such as bears and wolves sometimes find it. In Yellowstone, black and grizzly bears will take over a cougar’s kill. Coyotes will try, but can be killed by the cougar instead. Wolves displace cougars from approximately 6% of their elk carcasses.
Although cougars and wolves once co-existed across much of their historical range, ecological research on each species has often had to be conducted in the absence of the other. By assessing pre- and post-wolf reintroduction data, biologists can learn about the ecological relationships between the two species. As social animals, wolves use different hunting techniques than the solitary cougar, but the two species prey on similar animals. While prey is abundant this competition is of little concern, but, a decrease in prey abundance could lead to an increase in competition between these carnivores.
In the early 1900s, cougars were killed as part of predator control in the parkl and likely eradicated along with wolves in the 1930s. However, cougars naturally recolonized by the early 1980s.
From 1987 to 1996, the first cougar ecology study was conducted in Yellowstone National Park. The research documented population dynamics of cougars in the northern Yellowstone ecosystem inside and outside the park boundary, determined home ranges and habitat requirements, and assessed the role of cougars as a predator. Of the 88 cougars that were captured, 80 were radio-collared.
From 1998 to 2006, the second phase of that research was conducted. Researchers monitored 83 radio-collared cougars, including 50 kittens in 24 litters. Between 1998 and 2005, researchers documented 473 known or probable cougar kills. Elk comprised 74%: 52% calves, 36% cows, 9% bulls, 3% unknown sex or age. Cougars killed about one elk or deer every 9.4 days and spent almost 4 days at each kill. The study also documented that wolves interfered with or scavenged more than 22% of the cougar-killed ungulates. The monitoring associated with this project has been completed and all of the radio-collars have been removed, but years of data are still being analyzed. New research is underway to evaluate population abundance, predation patterns, and competition with other carnivores.
Very few cougar–human confrontations have occurred in Yellowstone. However, observations of cougars, particularly those close to areas of human use or residence, should be reported.
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Last updated: August 16, 2019