The cougar (Puma concolor), also referred to as mountain lion, puma, deer tiger, panther, catamount, leone (Spanish), and "el tigre" (Spanish) has the has the largest geographic range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile. Cougars are found in a broad range of habitats, in all forest types, as well as steppe grasslands and montane desert. Their range spans 28 countries, with their presence being uncertain in Uruguay. The cougar is native to Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Cougars are “umbrella” species used to identify and preserve wildlife corridors and natural landscapes, as well as keystone species vital to ecosystem health and diversity. Cougars capture the imagination; they are charismatic, controversial and draw attention from across communities with polarized views and interests. Thus, cougar research is about communicating with diverse and often opposing demographics, and building bridges between polarized communities.
Though the cougar is an adaptable and resilient cat, and occupies every major habitat type of the Americas (including the high Andes), it was eliminated from the entire eastern half of North America and most of Patagonia within the 200 years following European colonization. A remnant endangered subpopulation persists in Florida, however, records of cougars in northeastern Canada and the midwest U.S. suggest their numbers are increasing and that they are recolonizing former range.
The cougar is listed as "Least Concern" because it is so widespread. However, despite reports that cougars are increasing in portions of the U.S., the species is considered to be declining overall.
A Species Under Threat
Cougars are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, over harvest in areas where they are legally and/or illegally hunted, and persecution by people wherever they roam. Cougars suffer continuous retaliatory hunting due to pet and livestock depredation, as well as following real or perceived threats they pose to humans.
Cougars are legally hunted in many western U.S. states, although hunting was banned by popular vote in California in 1990 (California and Florida are the only two states where hunting is banned). For the endangered subpopulation of Florida panthers, road kills are the principal cause of mortality; heavily travelled roads are major barriers to cougars across their range, impacting their movement and dispersal patterns, and affecting breeding and their long-term survival.
Outside of Canada, Mexico, Peru, and the U. S. (where hunting regulations are in place), cougars are protected across much of their range. Hunting is prohibited in northern Argentina and all of Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Uruguay. Cougars are still bounty hunted in southern Argentina. Policing poaching in rural areas remains problematic, and illegal killing of cougars is common and widespread.
How We're Helping
Panthera is focused on activities in key areas to address threats to cougars, including conflict mitigation and education in South America’s Patagonia and Wyoming, scientific research to determine how to effectively and sustainably manage cougars in human-dominated landscapes in Wyoming, and scientific studies of cougar prey selection of rare species (e.g., bighorn sheep and fishers) and livestock (sheep in Patagonia) aimed at addressing current cougar culling practices. Panthera supports four projects, led by Teton Cougar Project Leader, Dr. Mark Elbroch, and Executive Director of Panthera’s Jaguar and Cougar Programs, Dr. Howard Quigley:
- The Teton Cougar Project (our flagship cougar project in Wyoming),
- The Northern Yellowstone Cougar Project in Wyoming,
- The Kings River Lion Project in California, and,
- The Torres del Paine Puma Project in southernmost Chile.
Now in its thirteenth year, the Teton Cougar Project (TCP) employs cutting-edge technology combined with intensive field methods to track and gather ecological data on the cougar population north of Jackson, Wyoming, in the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. These data provide Panthera an understanding of cougar population dynamics, habitat selection, and cougar interactions with competing carnivores necessary for our long-term cougar conservation programs. Further, the Teton Cougar Project is revealing the secret social lives of cougars through innovative technology, work that may rewrite our understanding of the social ecology of this species. The TCP works with a wide variety of cooperators to succeed in this study area, including Craighead Beringia South, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Grand Teton National Park, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as private landowners and local non-government organizations.
Beginning in 2014, Panthera will participate in a new Northern Yellowstone Project focused on determining how cougars have responded to reestablished wolves in Yellowstone National Park, and their influence upon declining elk herds. Partnering with Dr. Toni Ruth, who conducted nearly ten years of research on the Northern Range of Yellowstone, and with Yellowstone National Park and the local NGO Sinopah Wildlife Research Associates, Panthera is helping to design and implement research that will update our knowledge of cougar-wolf interactions and impacts at one of the first wolf re-introduction sites in North America.
The Kings River Lion Project is a collaborative effort with Dr. Craig Thompson, the U.S. Forest Service and Greta Wengert of the Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC) to study a 3-way carnivore guild on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Fisher (Martes pennanti) are a rare mammal under review for endangered status by the state of California and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Ongoing research has identified cougars as the fisher’s primary predator. Panthera’s role in this project is to provide expertise needed to track cougars and gather data to better understand whether individual cougars or all cougars are preying on fishers, and whether cougars kill fishers at random or whether human forestry practices are creating areas where fishers and cougars are more likely to interact. Further, in collaboration with the IERC, Panthera is studying spatial and temporal relations and niche overlap between cougars and bobcats.
Beginning in 2014, and in collaboration with Dr. Melissa Grigione (Pace Univeristy) and Dr. Ronald Sarno (Hoffstra Univeristy), Panthera will launch a new project on private ranches adjacent to Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile. Patagonian ranchers and cougars have been competing with one another in this area for 150 years. Ranchers report annual losses of 36% of sheep to puma predation (approx. $2.8 million/year), and in outrage over the lack of governmental intervention, have relentlessly hunted pumas in and around the Park for years. Our goals include quantifying actual cougar predation on domestic sheep, and determining whether individual cougars or all cougars are preying on domestic sheep. This will allow Panthera’s scientists to create a comprehensive conservation plan to aid local ranchers, support the Chilean government, and implement real protection for local cougars. In addition to our ecological research, we are partnering with local NGOs to provide community education on improved animal husbandry and the ecological importance of cougars in natural systems.
While 32 subspecies have been classically described, the latest genetic analyses (Culver et al. 2000) suggest that there are six subspecies, but ongoing debate surrounds a possible seventh (the Florida panther):
P. c. cougar: North America
P. c. coryi: North America, Florida only
P. c. costaricensis: Central America
P. c. capricornensis: eastern South America
P. c. concolor: northern South America
P. c. cabrerae: central South America
P. c. puma: southern South America
Read Panthera's Cougar Report Card: The State of the Cougar.