What We Know About Mountain Lions
Much of Colorado, including the Front Range, is prime mountain lion country. This simple fact is a surprise to many residents and visitors. These large, powerful predators have always lived here, preying on plentiful deer and playing an important role in the ecosystem.
You may live in or recreate in lion country. Like any wildlife, mountain lions can be dangerous. With a better understanding of mountain lions and their habitat, we can coexist with these magnificent animals.
Two mountain lions resting on a ledge, sheltered from the heat of the day. (Photo courtesy of the USFWS.)
The mountain lion, commonly known as cougar, panther, or puma, exists only in the Western Hemisphere and is one of North America's biggest cats. In Colorado, population estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 mountain lions. A lion's natural life span is probably about 12 years in the wild and up to 25 years in captivity. Lions are very powerful and usually kill large animals, such as deer and elk. Natural enemies include other large predators such as bears, lions, and wolves. They also fall victim to accidents, disease, road hazards, and people.
The status of the mountain lion in Colorado evolved from that of varmint, on which a $50 bounty was offered from 1929, to designation as a big game species in 1965. The change in legal status reflected growing public appreciation and concern for sound mountain lion management.
- The lion's scientific name, Felis concolor, means "cat of one color". Mountain lions in this area are usually tawny to light cinnamon in color with black-tipped ears and tail.
- 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 Colorado. Lions are much larger than lynx or bobcats and have a long tail, which may measure one-third of their total length.
- The mountain lion's habitat ranges from desert, chaparral, and badland breaks to subalpine mountains and tropical rain forests.
- In Colorado, lions are found in areas of pinyon pine, juniper, mountain mahogany, ponderosa pine, and oak brush. Lions generally will be most abundant in areas with plentiful deer.
- Individual lions range in areas varying in size from 10 to 370 square miles. Females with young kittens use the smallest areas; adult males occupy the largest areas.
- Size of the home range depends on the terrain and how much food is available. Boundaries of male home range are marked with piles of dirt and twigs, called scrapes, which signal to other lions that this area is occupied.
Hunting and Feeding Habits
- Lions are most active from dusk to dawn, although they 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 pets.
- 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 available cover, then attacks with a rush, often from behind.
- Lions usually kill with a powerful bite below the base of the skull, breaking the neck. Lions drag the carcass to a sheltered spot beneath a tree or overhang to feed on it. They cover the carcass with dirt, leaves, or snow and may return to feed on it over the course of a few days. Generally, they move the carcass and re-cover it after each feeding.
- Lions feeding on a kill can be dangerous to people. Lions that have been fed by people or seem "tame" may become aggressive unexpectedly.
Mating and Breeding
- Female lions generally reproduce when they are about 2 1/2 years old.
- Courtship begins when a roaming female in heat makes frequent sounds and leaves a scent that attracts males. After locating the female, the male accompanies her for just a few days when mating occurs.
- Breeding can take place throughout the year but most females give birth between April and July, following a 3-month gestation period.
Birth to Maturity
- The female gives birth to an average of 2 to 3 young, called kittens. She usually chooses a secluded spot beneath an uprooted tree or a rocky depression. Care of the kittens rests solely with the female. She defends them vigorously against male lions, which may kill them.
- Newborn kittens are about 1 foot long and weigh about 1 pound. They are covered with blackish-brown spots and have dark rings around their short 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.
- Kittens learn hunting skills through play and exploration, and by watching their mother. When the young are about 6 weeks old, she begins taking them to her kills to feed.
- As the kittens mature, their spots fade. At six months, they weigh over 30 pounds and are capable hunters. Kittens remain with their mother for another year, improving their hunting skills.
To Learn More
For the most part, people and wildlife can coexist. Coexisting with wildlife is an enjoyable part of living in Colorado. The key is to respect the wildness of wildlife. You can learn more about lions by reading any of the following books.
Mountain Lion Education and Identification Course
A Critical Review of Literature on Puma, 1983, by A.E. Anderson, Division of Wildlife. Special Report # 54
America's Great Cats, 1986, by Gary Turbak and Alan Carey, Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ
Soul Among Lions: The Cougar as Peaceful Adversary, 1989, by Harley G. Shaw, Johnson Books, Boulder, CO
The Puma: Legendary Lion of the Americas, 1987, by J. B. Tinsley, Texas Western Press, El Paso, TX
The Wonder Series: Mountain Lion, A Story and Activities, by Sandra Chisholm Robinson, Denver Museum of Natural History, Denver, CO