The Mountain Lion

   New Mexico is blessed in the diversity of its habitats and terrain. Much of the state is prime mountain lion country. This fact may surprise many residents and visitors. This large, powerful predator has always lived here, preying on deer, and playing an important role in the ecosystem.
   You may live in or recreate in lion country. As with any wildlife, mountain lions can be dangerous. With a better understanding of mountain lions and their habitat, we can live together with these magnificent animals.


   The most adept large carnivore (meat eater) in New Mexico is the mountain lion. Mountain lions are known by several other names, such as cougar, panther, painter, catamount or puma (an Incan word meaning, 'a powerful animal'). The scientific name for the mountain lion is Puma concolor, meaning 'cat of one color'.
  The mountain lion has evolved as a solitary-living predator (an animal dependent upon killing and eating other animals ,prey, for its own survival). In contrast, wolves hunt in a pack when attacking a big animal, for example an elk. Bears, which mostly eat vegetation, are incompetent predators compared with lions.
   Most carnivores are generalist foragers, that is, they are able to get by on a varied diet. Coyotes will eat watermelons and grapes as well as meat. Lions, however, are specialized predators which are the result of about 2 million years of evolution where their behavior is designed to meet their food requirements. Their teeth, claws, speed, and stealth are designed to bring down fresh meat. They prefer to kill their own food and infrequently eat carrion (decomposing flesh). Lions are at the top of the food chain, and thus reflect the general health of the ecosystem. What this means is that if lions individually and as members of a population are in good health, then prey populations (like deer and elk) are also in good health and fitness, and subsequently the vegetation that the deer and elk consume is in good supply.
   By any name, this species of animal is the biggest of the 'purring cats' (as compared to the roaring cats like tigers, leopards and African lions) and epitomizes grace, stealth, and steel-muscled power. Our mountain lion cannot roar because the hyoid bone, at the base of its tongue, is not flexible; thus air passing over the bone does not vibrate and allow it to roar. This condition has earned it the indignity of being lumped into a category with the 'small cats'. An extremely large male can measure nine feet from nose to end of tail (the tail can be over 3 feet long) and weigh 220 pounds. This tawny hunter with the black mustache and long tail has been revered as a god by many Native American tribes and is the icon of many sport teams (e.g. Cibolla High School Cougars, Clovis High School Wildcats, Sweeney Elementary Cougars, etc.).
   At one time mountain lions had the largest geographic range of any land mammal in the western hemisphere, occupying habitats from the Yukon to the Strait of Magellan and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The appearance of European settlers and their expansion led to bounties on the lion. These bounties and habitat loss due to large-scale human settlement eliminated mountain lions from almost all of the eastern United States and reduced their numbers in much of the west. In fact, during only the past 200 years, the geographic range of lions in North America has been reduced by more than one-half. The early conservation movement labeled and believed there were "bad" animals such as mountain lions and "good" animals like deer, and that conservation entailed killing the former on behalf of the latter. Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States and chief architect of the conservation movement in the country, dismissed the lion as an evolutionary error in need of correction by people who cared. He called the mountain lion the 'Lord of stealthy murder'. However, humans have recently become more tolerant of lions, primarily because of factual scientific information gathered on the species since the mid-1960's. As a result, western states and Canadian provinces have responded with protective legislation that sets regulatory hunting seasons and bag limits on lions. This has allowed lions to recover in numbers and regain historical geographic range in the west.
   In New Mexico, population estimates presently range from 1,000 to 2,000 mountain lions. The San Andres Mountains in south-central New Mexico provide about 800 square miles of lion habitat where lions reach densities of 2 to 5 adults per 100 square miles and 5 to 10 lions of all ages per 100 square miles.
   A lion's natural life span is probably about 12 years in the wild and up to 25 years in captivity. Natural enemies besides humans include other large predators such as bears, wolves (not present in New Mexico at this time) other lions, and sometimes coyotes. Lions also fall victim to accidents, disease, road hazards and people.
   The status of the mountain lion in New Mexico has evolved from their first legal recognition in 1867 when the Territorial Legislature passed a predatory bounty law which provided for payment of a $5.00 bounty. The bounty was suspended in 1923. Until 1971, mountain lions were considered to be varmints and were subjects of unrestricted killing through hunting and trapping primarily to protect livestock and secondarily to protect game. In 1971, the mountain lion was placed on the list of New Mexico's protected wildlife species and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) assumed the management authority, which included the establishment of hunting seasons, bag limits, and resolution of depredation on livestock. The change in legal status reflected growing public appreciation and concern for sound mountain lion management. The legal authority of the NMDGF to manage mountain lions (and other wildlife) is expressed in New Mexico Statutes Annotated, 1978 Compilation, Chapter 17, Section 17-1-1. Presently, in New Mexico mountain lions may be hunted by any person with the proper lion license and tag. The lion hunting season extends from December 1 through March 31; the bag limit is one lion per hunter.
   In 1985, a 10-year study was begun to investigate the population dynamics and social organization of mountain lions and their relationship with prey in a protected lion population on White Sands Missile Range. This study was contracted through the NMDGF to the Hornocker Wildlife Institute, Inc., and the project leaders for the duration of the study were Kenneth A. Logan and Linda L. Sweanor. The field work for these investigations ended in March 1995 and the final report titled Cougars of the San Andres Mountains, New Mexico was released to the public in September 1996. Seventy-nine percent of the project funds were obtained through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Grant W-128-R and 25 percent were from the NMDGF Game Protection Fund. The project was initiated through a $200,000.00 grant from Share with Wildlife, the NMDGF's state income tax checkoff program; this money provided the first year funding. The study was conducted with the cooperation of the U.S. Army at White Sands Missile Range and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge.
   The most important thing that lion research in New Mexico has taught us is that there are many small populations (subpopulations) of lions that, in concert, form a large metapopulation within the state. Subpopulations are linked to one another by young lions (subadults) that disperse away from their places of birth and settle as adults in other subpopulations. Dispersing subadults may reach other subpopulations as far as 300 airline miles from where they were born. Consequently, dispersing lions contribute to the numeric and genetic viability of subpopulations, and thus to the persistence of the metapopulation. The long-term conservation of lions in New Mexico will depend upon maintaining large blocks of wild land that sustain subpopulations and wild landscape linkages or corridors that can be used by dispersing subadults.

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Physical Appearance

   As their scientific name implies, mountain lions are generally one color. Lions in New Mexico are usually tawny to light-cinnamon in color with black-tipped ears and tails. A black "mustache" accents the sides of the muzzle and contrasts sharply against the white fur around the mouth. The underparts of the neck, chest, and stomach all the way to the base of the tail are covered with whitish fur.
Mountain lions vary in size and weight, with males being larger than females. Adult males may be more than 8 feet in length and weigh an average of 150 pounds. Adult females may be up to 7 feet long and weigh an average of 90 pounds. Mountain lions are easily distinguished from other wild cat species in New Mexico. Lions are much larger than bobcats and have long tails which may measure one-third of their total length.


   When lions are not in a rush (which is usual) they place the hind paw in the imprint made by the front paw. The foot or paw of a lion has 4 toes with 3 distinct lobes present at the base of each pad. Claw marks are not usually seen because these animals like your house cat have retractable claws.
   The mountain lion is a solitary animal. But if tracks indicate that 2 lions are traveling together, it is probably a breeding pair. Three or more sets of tracks indicate a family comprised of the mother and her 2 to 4 cubs - the only true social unit in mountain lions.


   The mountain lion's habitat (where an organism lives and includes food, water, shelter, space and all of these components in the correct arrangement) ranges from desert chaparral and badland breaks to subalpine mountains and tropical rain forests. In New Mexico, lions are found in all six life zones: alpine, subalpine, coniferous forest, transition (mountain), grasslands/woodlands and the desert zone. Lions are found in areas of pinon pine, juniper, mountain mahogany, ponderosa pine, oak, spruce and fir, creosote and mesquite. Because deer and elk are the most common food sources for lions, the habitat in which lions live is dependent on adequate habitat for mule deer and elk. Therefore, lion habitat must also be deer and elk habitat and contain enough food (shrubs and browse) for these animals as well as all the other components necessary to allow the prey populations to respond reproductively to predation by lions.
   Individual lions range in areas varying in size from 10 to 370 square miles. The size of the home range (land over which an animal normally roams) depends mostly on the terrain and how much food is available. Females with young kittens use the smallest areas while adult males occupy the largest areas.
   Mountain lions can travel immense distances. During the 10-year mountain lion study in New Mexico, some of the lions from the San Andres Mountains on White Sands Missile Range were translocated to the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Cimarron. One of the translocated adult male lions, known to scientists as M88, returned to his original territory after covering about 304 airline miles in 166 days.

Hunting and Feeding Habits

   Lions are most active from dusk to dawn, although they sometimes travel and hunt in daylight. Lions prefer to eat deer; however, they also kill elk, porcupines, small mammals, livestock and a variety of domestic animals such as dogs and cats.
   Mountain lions prefer to kill their own prey. Like most cats, they take their prey by ambush rather than by a long pursuit. After spotting prey, a lion stalks using the available cover, then attacks with a rush, often from behind the prey animal.
   A lion usually kills with a powerful bite below the base of the skull, breaking the neck. Sometimes they bite the prey's throat, resulting in death by strangulation, or it bites the head, crushing the braincase. A lion will drag the carcass to a sheltered spot beneath a tree or overhang or into dense shrubs to feed on it. It covers the carcass with dirt, leaves or snow and may return to feed on it over the course of a few days. Often, the lion moves the carcass and re-covers it after each feeding to keep other animals from the meat. It takes a single lion up to 10 days to devour a large prey item like a mule deer.
   Lions feeding on a kill can be extremely dangerous to people. Lions that have been fed by people or seem 'tame' may become aggressive unexpectedly. NEVER FEED WILDLIFE!


   Territorial male mountain lions periodically mark throughout the area of their territories by scratching up small piles of ground debris (e.g., soil, leaves, twigs, small stones) with their hind feet. These little depressions and the monuments are called scratches or scrapes. Scrape site function like "bulletin boards" in lion society providing information to other lions about occupancy in the area and probably the sex, breeding condition, and social status of individuals.
   Mountain lions also communicate with a variety of vocalizations that include meows, growls, hisses, caterwauls, and bird-like whistles.

Mating and Breeding

   Female lions most often begin to reproduce or breed when they are around two years old. Courtship begins when a roaming female in heat (prepared and receptive for breeding) makes frequent vocalizations and visits scrape sites to leave scent that attracts males. After locating the female, the male accompanies her for up to 10 days during which mating occurs repeatedly.
   Mountain lions may breed during any month; consequently, cubs may be born during any month of the year following the 3-month gestation period. However, most births occur during July through November.

Birth to Maturity

   The female gives birth to an average of 2 to 3 young that are called kittens or cubs. The mother's den usually is a secluded site such as a bolder pile, rock outcrop, undercut cliff, dense patch of shrubs, or the base of an uprooted tree (sites that provide good lateral and overhead cover and hiding spaces that cubs can use to avoid predators). Newborn kittens are eight to 12 inches long and weigh about one pound. They are brown in color with numerous black spots and have dark rings around their tails. The young stir only to nurse until they are about 2 weeks old, when their eyes open and they become alert and playful. Weaning occurs at about 2 months of age. Care of kittens rests solely with the mother. As the kittens mature, their spots fade. By the time the kittens are nine months old their spots have faded to light brown dapples on the tawny pelage. Kittens remain with their mother for 11 to 18 months. Thereafter, they strike out on their own, becoming independent subadults. A few may stay behind to be recruited into the population in which they were born. Most disperse long distances as they search for a place to establish their own home ranges (females) or territories (males).

How to Recognize What a Lion’s Posture and Position Means

   Mountain lions convey their intentions through various body postures, facial expressions, and vocalizations. Some of these are important for people to recognize because they serve as warning signals. A lion may convey curiosity while standing or sitting, looking intently at the subject of interest with its ears perked forward, and even sniffing the air. A lion approaching a subject in a half or full crouch with its ears perked forward and eyes riveted on the subject means serious business; it may be preparing to launch an attack. Even a lion laying on its belly with all 4 feet under it, ears perked forward, eyes riveted on the subject, and tail twitching nervously is sizing up the situation and can launch an attack in a split second. To express aggression, a lion may vocalize a low-key growl with its mouth closed, or it may 'hiss' with its mouth wide open, baring its teeth. If a lion is cornered with no route for escape, it may express fear by lowering its ears down and back (pinning its ears back") and it may vocalize by growling or hissing and baring its teeth. The lion may do this in the standing or sitting position. The cornered lion may also bluff charge or attack the subject cornering it. The most important thing to remember is never approach a mountain lion and always leave it a way out (see: If You Encounter A Mountain Lion).

If You Go Into Mountain Lion Habitat

* When you hike in mountain lion habitat go in groups and make enough noise to prevent surprising a lion.

* Make sure all children are close to adults, preferably within arms reach.

* Do Not allow children to run about far in front or behind adults - their high pitched voices and rapid movements may attract lions.

* Take a sturdy walking stick, it can be used as a weapon against a lion.

* Never Approach a Lion - they are unpredictable and will usually avoid a confrontation - give them a way out.

If You Encounter a Mountain Lion

   Humans rarely will get more than just a brief glimpse of a mountain lion in the wild. In general, lions actively avoid humans. Lion attacks on people are extremely rare. In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in lion-human encounters primarily as a result of two interacting factors:

* the dramatic increase in human population size and the attendant increase in housing developments into previously rural or wild areas, and

* lion populations have increased and reclaimed historical habitats.

   Evidence that attacks are extremely rare include the following: since 1890, there have been about 70 lion attacks documented in North America, and of those attacks, about 15 were fatal. Comparing fatalities: automobile accidents kill about 50,000 persons per year, lightning strikes kill about 86 people per year, bee stings kill about 40 people per year, rattlesnakes kill about 12 people per year, and over 80 persons are killed by family dogs.
   To keep these interactions in perspective, mountain lions have evolved (changed) behaviors for killing prey and thus they do not have the ability to change their behavior in response to humans. We as humans have the capacity to alter our behavior and we recognize that through the proper use of knowledge we can lessen the possibility of negative interactions with lions. These animals are beautiful and serve a very important role in the ecosystems they live in, so remember to not fear these animals but respect their behavior and abilities. There are no studies to determine what you should do if you meet a lion. Based upon observations by researchers, there are patterns of lion behavior and response which are emerging.
   The following suggestions may be helpful if you encounter a lion, however, keep in mind that every situation is different with respect to the lion, the terrain, the people involved and their activities. Use common sense when in lion country, alter your behavior and keep the risk of interaction with lions in perspective - do not live in fear but respect the lifestyle of mountain lions.

Stop or back away slowly - if you can do so safely.

Stay calm - when you come upon a lion talk calmly yet firmly to it and move slowly.

Immediately pick up all children off the ground and tell them to stay calm.

Do not run from a lion - fleeing behavior may trigger the instinct of the lion to attack.

Face the lion - do not turn your back - remain in an upright position and look as large as possible (raise your arms, open up your coat, if your wearing one).

Carry a walking stick - use the stick to defend yourself by keeping it between you and the lion.

If the lion approaches closer or behaves aggressively (see: Lion Body Language), arm yourself with the stick, throw rocks or sticks at the lion, speak louder and more firmly to the lion. Convince the lion you are dominant and a danger to it.

Fight back if a lion attacks you!! Use any possible object within reach as a weapon, such as rocks, sticks, jackets, a backpack or use your bare hands. Lions have been driven away by prey that fights back. Stay standing and if you fall down try to get back up on your feet.

If You Live In Mountain Lion Country

Humans can live with these magnificent predators if we learn to respect the mountain lion and its' habitat. To reduce the risk of problems created by interactions between ourselves and mountain lions, the following simple precautions are advised.

1. Closely supervise Children - make sure they are home before dusk and not outside before dawn. Make lots of noise if you come or go during times when mountain lions are most active - dusk to dawn. Teach your children about lions and what they should do if they encounter one.

2. Landscape or remove vegetation to eliminate hiding cover for lions especially around areas where children play. Make it difficult for a lion to approach unseen.

3. Install outdoor lighting, especially in areas where you walk, so you can see a lion if one were present.

4. Close off open spaces below porches or decks.

5. Do Not Feed Wildlife - primarily deer. Use native plants not non-natives so as to not attract deer, which are the primary prey of lions. Remember predators follow prey.

6. Do Not let your pets roam around outside. Bring them in at night. If you keep pets outside provide a kennel with a secure top. Do not feed pets outside where the food can attract lions or other smaller animals which lions prey upon. Store and dispose of all garbage securely.

7. Place all livestock in enclosed sheds or barns at night. Close the doors to all outbuildings so that an inquisitive lion is prevented from going inside to look around.

8. Encourage your neighbors to take these precautions, so that your neighborhood is a relatively safe zone from lions. Remember prevention is much better than a possible confrontation with a lion.


Who Do You Call?

   The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is responsible for managing, conserving and protecting wildlife. Your concerns about wildlife are our concerns as well.
   If you have an encounter with a lion or an attack occurs, please immediately contact the Department of Game and Fish, Monday through Friday, 8am - 5pm, as listed below. After hours, contact the New Mexico State Police Division of Public Safety or your local Sheriff's Department. To report a sighting, please contact the Department during normal business hours. Your information is very valuable to us.