Desert Lions

by Ron Harton

This spring, while hiking in the canyons of the Kaibab Plateau, north of the Grand Canyon, Cindy and I stopped at the sight of the front leg of a deer, gnawed off below the knee. We looked around and saw in the moist red earth nearby the largest cat tracks we have ever seen. We measured them at almost nine centimeters (about 3 1/4 inches) in width. We knew they were from a mountain lion — a big one. A mountain lion with that size track might weigh 150 pounds and be seven feet long.

The canyon we were in is ideal mountain lion habitat. The lions= tawny, sandy color blends well with the colors of the rocks. The canyon bottom is covered with cheatgrass providing forage for deer. Limestone ledges on the canyon walls overlook the grass areas. Mountain lions can observe their prey from the ledges and then drop down on it from above. There are many small caves and grottoes in the rocks to provide shelter.

Mountain lions (Felis concolor), also known as cougars and pumas are one of the most widespread mammals of the western hemisphere. They live from Patagonia at the southern end of South America to the Yukon Territory in northern Canada. They are found throughout the wilderness areas and even within some urban areas. Exploding human population has brought more people into contact with cougars. A few years ago, sport hunting advocates tried to legalize the slaughter of mountain lions in California. The proposal, Proposition 197, was defeated in March 1996. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 cougars live in California.

Although mountain lions are not found in the most arid spots of the desert, they do live throughout the desert regions, particularly in the mountains and on the mesas. They even live in Death Valley National Park. Mountain lions live anywhere there is enough forage for deer, their primary food, or other large prey to thrive. It has been estimated that an adult cougar needs one deer every week or two, or the equivalent, to survive. They will kill and eat animals of any size. They prefer to hunt at night and approach their prey from the rear, killing with a powerful bite to the base of the skull which breaks the neck. Cougars have been known to stalk humans, but the number of people attacked by mountain lions (six in six years) is nowhere near the number of people attacked by pet dogs every year. (There are twenty deaths per year from dog attacks in the U.S.)

Like domestic cats, mountain lions may breed at any time of the year and consequently litters may be born in any month. Also like house cats, cougars are multiparous, bearing several spotted kits or cubs in each litter. The kits lose their spots within six months. The young lions stay with their mother for 15 to 20 months learning to hunt. The mother may leave the kits at a kill site while she goes to find the next meal. The kits both eat their food and play with it, sometimes scattering the gnawed bones, such as the bone Cindy and I saw. Adult cougars may hide prey they cannot eat at one meal by dragging or carrying it out of sight and /or covering it with leaves and other plant material.

Both mountain lion males and females are solitary beings. The adult males do not help in raising the young. In fact, males stay with females only long enough to breed. Each lion requires from 40 to 80 square miles of territory. Males must find suitable unoccupied territory or else challenge a resident male for his space. Female are less territorial. Their territories are smaller and their boundaries may overlap with other females. The territory of one male may include the areas of several females. Mountain lions may live up to twelve years in the wild.

I have only seen mountain lions twice while hiking; neither time was in the desert. One spring, hiking in the foothills of the coast range, my two young children and I pushed aside a dense curtain of buckeye branches to enter into its shade. There on the other side of the tree, just under the canopy sat a cougar. We froze. I told the kids to continue to look at the cat, but to move slowly behind me. Together we backed through the branches the way we came, leaving the shade to the lion.

Later we learned that we had used the proper strategy. It is best, in a mountain lion encounter, to continue to face the cat, not turn and run. Running may excite the cougar into attacking. Experts also say it=s a good idea to appear as large as possible and to defend yourself if attacked. Experts also advise some basic precautions for hiking in cougar country: hike in groups, don=t roam alone at night, and keep a close eye on small children. The chance of being attacked is very small, less than that of being struck by lightning. Remember, we are sharing the territory of the mountain lion. Acting with awareness and caution is simply an act of respect for the place of the mountain lion in the world.