The cougar (Cougar concolor), also referred to as cougar, mountain lion, deer tiger, panther, catamount, leone (Spanish), and "el tigre" (Spanish) 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, recent records of cougars in northeastern Canada and the midwestern U.S. suggest 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 huemul) and livestock (sheep in Patagonia) aimed at addressing current cougar culling practices. Panthera is currently strategically growing its investment in and support of cougar projects, led by Director of Science for Cougars, Dr. Mark Elbroch, and Executive Director of Panthera’s Jaguar and Cougar Programs, Dr. Howard Quigley. What follows are current and developing Panthera projects:
- Panthera's Teton Cougar Project (our flagship cougar project in Wyoming),
- Northern Mexico Cougar Wolf Project in Chihuahua,
- East Bay Regional Parks Cougar Project in California, and,
- The Torres del Paine Cougar Project in southernmost Chile.
Now in its fifteenth year, Panthera's 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, Panthera's 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.
In collaboration with Dr. Carlos López Gonzalez (Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro, Mexico), we are studying the effects of Mexican gray wolf translocations on cougars in northern Mexico in an exciting attempt to reestablish wolves in historic Mexican range. Panthera joins this incredibly exciting opportunity to study the interactions between new wolves and resident cougars, in an area where cougar ecology and population dynamics are completely unknown. Poaching cougars in northern Mexico is completely normal and has never been quantified, and thus our additional objectives will be to quantify local poaching, to address poaching in a public forum, and attempt to reduce – if not end - it.
Panthera is in the earliest stages of developing the East Bay Regional Parks Cougar Project, a collaborative effort with East Bay Regional Parks near San Francisco. The state of California covers more than 99 million acres (400,000 km2). Of that, approximately half of the state is considered occupied cougar habitat, where they compete with a growing population of more than 37 million people. Current cougar conservation imperatives in California include understanding cougar ecology in suburban and urban areas, where cougar populations are increasingly coming into conflict with people. This project would be a comprehensive look at cougar ecology in the East Bay and be instrumental in aiding public agencies and private individuals understand and live with America’s big cat.
Beginning in 2016, and in collaboration with Dr. Melissa Grigione (Pace University) and Dr. Ronald Sarno (Hofstra Univeristy), Panthera will launch a new project in and adjacent 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 cougar predation (approx. $2.8 million/year), and in outrage over the lack of governmental intervention, have relentlessly hunted cougars in and around the Park for years. Our goals include quantifying actual cougar predation on domestic sheep to determine whether individual cougars or all cougars are preying on domestic sheep. We are also testing various methods to reduce sheep predation and cougar persecution, including guardian dogs and ecotourism. 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. puma: 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