Without question, a cougar is an animal that incites fear in some who venture into the backcountry.
However, people from the Beehive State don’t have a lot to be fearful about when it comes to encounters with cougars, which are also commonly known as mountain lions in the western United States.
In fact, there has never been a documented fatal attack involving a cougar and human in Utah. Only a few attacks involving mountain lions and humans in this state have been documented in the past 20 years, and none of them have involved life-threatening injuries.
“People kind of get nervous and afraid of those animals, but most of the time you’re not ever going to see a cougar that will be near you,” said Darren DeBloois, a district biologist for the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) for Cache and Rich counties. “... People hear a lot about incidents in California, but not in Utah. There just haven’t been a lot of things like that. People who spend a lot of time in the backcountry rarely see them, and it’s not because they’re not around, it’s just they go the other way when they hear us coming. We’re kind of noisy.”
Indeed, cougars are very covert in their movement, plus they are primarily nocturnal — two big reasons why unintentional human encounters are very rare. Although mountain lions do most of their hunting in the night, they are known to stalk their prey during dusk and dawn, DeBloois said.
Cougars are strictly carnivores — unlike other large animals like bears, which can also subsist on berries — and they are not scavengers. Mountain lions are known to prey on a large variety of ungulates, which are hoofed animals, but most of the cougars in northern Utah and southern Idaho rely on mule deer for their primary diet.
One source, an experienced cougar tracker who requested to remain anonymous, said cougars have been known to take down 350-pound bull moose. The mountain lions around Grand Teton National Park feast primarily on elk, he said, although these animals often settle for smaller prey such as wild turkeys, rabbits and grouse.
According to the anonymous source, a female cougar can feed up to a week on a single mule deer, so long as the meat doesn’t spoil. Mountain lions cache their prey, meaning they cover the remains with branches, brush, grass and snow, and return to feed on the animal. Cougars will remain in close proximity to their kill until the animal has been completely consumed.
Cougars ambush their meal of choice, and typically make a kill by pouncing on the back and biting the neck of their prey. Mountain lions are very athletic as they can run to 50 mph for short bursts, leap as high as 18 feet or 40-45 feet horizontally in one bound.
Despite their athleticism, cougars have very low life expectancy rates. Mountain lions in captivity can make it to their mid-to-late teens, but those in the wild generally perish before they reach the age of 10, said Dr. David Stoner, who is employed in Utah State University’s department of wildland resources.
“One that makes it to 10 is pretty old, and so anything beyond that is very unusual,” Stoner said.
Simply put, cougars in the wild have a difficult time surviving for more than a few years largely on account of their rough lifestyles. Not only do they have to kill everything they eat, mountain lions must also deal with potentially getting their teeth smashed in by the animals they hunt, disease, broken limbs, competition with other cougars and being hunted by humans.
Most female cougars give birth to one to four kittens per litter — a female can reproduce every two or three years — and if half of those kittens survive long enough to make it on their own, the mother “did a good job,” said the anonymous tracker.
From 1999-2012, Stoner was actively involved in a project that tracked cougars in Utah, primarily in the Fish Lake and Oquirrh Mountain regions. During that timespan, Stoner and his team were able to trap and handle 250 mountain lions and apply radio tracking collars to them. Only three or four of them lived to be 13 or 14 years old, Stoner said. Most of the older animals they tracked died after starving due to a lack of teeth.
The collars allowed Stoner and his colleagues to learn a lot about cougars of this region, including the location of their dens, how they interact, their movement patterns, how often they reproduce, the frequency of their kills and their habitat, among other things.
“A tremendous amount of information comes from those collars,” he said.
Because mountain lions are so elusive, they are difficult to enumerate. As a result, neither Stoner nor DeBloois could provide an estimate of how many cougars are living in the Cache Valley area. One thing for certain, though, is cougars can be found in all of the region’s mountains.
Stoner did say cougars in the valley “typically (are found) in densities of approximately anywhere from one to three adults per 100 square kilometers.” However, he did stress that three is a very high number and is generally only the case where there is a very large deer population which, of course, fluctuates.
When asked where in the valley cougars are the most common, DeBloois said the answer is “anecdotal.” However, he did surmise the older animals are more likely to be found in the wilderness areas that are especially difficult for humans to access.
The older cougars are typically not found in high densities, though, “because usually older animals have bigger home ranges and they don’t allow other younger animals in,” DeBloois said. “Eventually a young, stronger cat will come along, but until then he rules the roost.”
Home ranges for cougars are quite expansive, especially the males. Mountain lions generally achieve sexual maturity when they reach the age of a year and a half. That’s when they leave their mothers and go out on their own, a process known as dispersal.
Females usually settle down near their mothers, Stoner said, but “the males almost always leave. They can go easily as far as 500 miles (away from their mothers).” As a resident adult, cougars establish a home range and that range for females is typically 25-50 square males, but three times that amount for males, Stoner said.
Male mountain lions have a much better chance of living longer in Utah than they do in Idaho. That’s because anybody can purchase a cougar tag in the Gem State and hunters can purchase multiple tags a year. There is a quota for the number of female cougars that can be harvested a year, which is also the case in Utah.
The Beehive State, on the other hand, uses a limited-entry or harvest-objective system, or both when it comes to hunting cougars in its various units. Under the limited-entry system, hunters apply for a license and then are selected from that pool of applicants. Under the harvest-objective system, a quota is set and an unlimited number of hunters are issued tags until the harvest is meet.
Many of the hunting units in Utah use what’s called a split system when it comes to hunting cougars, which means limited-entry and harvest-objective tags are issued. Cache County uses a split system.
Cache County’s quota for cougars was set at 15 for the current season and, according to Utah’s DWR website, 10 have been harvested as of March 16. Of the 23 split units in Utah, Cache County is tied with Ogden for the largest mountain lion quota.
The fawn to doe ratio for deer is the biggest determining factor in how many cougar permits are issued a year in each of the Beehive State’s management areas, DeBloois said.
According to the Utah Cougar Annual Report 2013 on the DWR’s website, 365 limited-entry and 790 harvest-objective permits were issued during the 2012-2013 season. From 1990-2013, the average numbers of permits issued has been 445 for limited-entry and 832 for harvest-objective.
A total of 321 cougars were harvested during the ’12-’13 season. Additionally, 12 mountain lions were taken by Wildlife Services and 23 other cougar deaths were recorded — e.g. found dead, roadkill or under DWR control during that timespan.
As for as poaching is concerned, it is not a big problem in Utah.
“We did document poaching, but it was not a major cause of mortality on our two study sites,” Stoner wrote in an email.