36 » Backcountry
January + February 2010 » Washington Trails
Nature on Trail »
The large, elusive cats that roam the Northwest
TOP, RIGHT: Cap- tive cougar, Ralph Radford.
ABOVE, CENTER: Tracks in snow, Donny Martorello.
ABOVE: Paw print, Gary Koehler.
Ralph is a park rang- er working in cougar country at Wallace Falls State Park.
Ranging from northwestern Canada to Patagonia, South America, the cougar (Puma concolor) is the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. About 2,500 of these cats live in Washington state, where they are a native species.
Cougars go by a variety of names, including mountain lions, pumas, catamounts and deer tigers. The term “puma” is derived from the name used by the Incas of Peru and “cougar” comes from Brazil. Natives of Puget Sound called cougars “fire cats” and believed that each fall the cat carried fire from the Olympic mountains to Mount Rainier, starting a forest fire along the way.
To understand the habits of a cougar, take a look at a house cat. Like house cats, cougars are predator hunters and they purr. In fact, they are largest cats that purr. Cougars are also the fastest animals in North America, running up to 40 miles per hour. Cougars can leap 16 feet straight up and 45 feet across, the equiva- lent of the length of a school bus. Weighing in between 100 and 220 pounds, the cougar is the second largest of the New World cats, second only to the jaguar.
A solitary hunter, the cougar will not share its territory with others of its own kind. This home territory can be vast, ranging from 50 to 150 square miles. A cougar will kill bobcats, lynx and coyotes that seem to threaten the available prey populations.
Cougars often ambush their prey by waiting on a ledge, or up a tree, silent and motionless. They will leap onto the shoulders of a deer (their favorite meal) and bite into the back and neck of the animal. Cougars can take down an
elk or small moose, but they will also eat rac- coons, birds, foxes and mice. They will normally feed once or twice a week and will eat up to 10 pounds of meat. After the cougar is finished feeding on the prey, it will cover the carcass with leaves and sticks to save it for another day.
Adult females usually breed for the first time between two and three years of age, and they breed once every two or three years thereafter. The cougar has a short breeding period of up to two weeks duration. After a gestation period of approximately three months, a litter of two to five young will be born. The kittens are woolly, spotted, and have short tails. Kittens may remain with their mother for more than a year, learning hunting skills from her and often helping with the kill. Wild cougars can live up to eighteen years.
After the sighting and capture of an adult male cougar in Discovery Park in Seattle, we know that these solitary hunters live among us. If you encounter a cougar, don’t run. Remember that a cougar can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. Try to look bigger by holding your pack or coat over your head. Yell at the cougar. Throw rocks to discourage the cougar. When hiking with children, don’t let kids lead on a trail and keep kids between two adults whenever pos- sible.
If cougars are known for anything, however, it is their elusive quality. You can hike for years and never see one. Get to know their tracks, scat, marking and feeding signs, though, and you might find out that a cougar has already coursed the path ahead of you. t