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Cougar: North America's top feline is the apex for predator callers and houndsmen alike.

The cougar, often called mountain lion, isn't really a cat strictly of our western mountains. Once found coast to coast, the mountain lion is an adaptable cat, perfectly at home in forests and hills, the Southwestern deserts, and the jungles of Central America and South America as well as high country strongholds. The eastern population of the United States was essentially wiped out during our settlement era, excepting a threatened population that persists in Florida's Everglades.

That last doesn't sound good, but cougar populations are actually extremely healthy in the western United States and Canada. In recent decades cougars have reestablished their former range well east of the Rockies. Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas now have small breeding populations. Recent cougar sightings have been verified through much of the Upper Midwest; these are usually thought to be younger males wandering in search of territory and is almost certainly the explanation for a recent cougar sighting in Connecticut.

The Latin name was formerly Felis concolor, but today Puma concolor is more common. Either way, the cougar, mountain lion, or puma is part of the Felidae family of true cats. It is the fourth largest of the world's living cats, after the tiger, lion, and jaguar. At one time 32 subspecies were identified, but with DNA testing, many modern authorities cut this down to just six--just one in North America (P. c. cougar) and the remainder in South America. Still argued is whether the totally isolated "Florida panther-should be considered a valid subspecies, with some biologists insisting it is P. c. coryi.

The Latin name concolor, meaning plain or consistent in color, isn't altogether accurate. Although the basic hue is tan, individuals vary quite a lot from nearly gray to reddish, with white underparts and dark, almost black, markings on the sides of the muzzle and back of the ears. Cougars tend to follow Bergmann's Law: smallest near the Equator and largest at the northern and southern limits of their range. Mature males run from perhaps 120 pounds to perhaps 220 pounds; females are about a third smaller. The heaviest cougar officially recorded, taken in 1901, weighed 232 pounds, but actual weights over 200 pounds are rare. Length can approach eight feet, but more than a third of that is the cougar's thick, luxurious tail.

Although not especially nocturnal, the cougar is a shy, retiring cat, and plentiful sightings are uncommon. In a lifetime of hunting the American West, I have had exactly three cougar sightings. The lack of sightings results in the false impression that cougars are scarce, but since they are a highly successful predator, there are probably as many as there should be in much of the western United States and Canada.

A cougar will cover a natural kill for an eventual return, but unlike the leopard, it will not feed on carrion, so baiting is not a likely option.

A number of cougars are taken in chance encounters, but the odds of an individual simply running into a cougar are pretty slim. The traditional and only consistently successful technique is hunting with hounds. I understand why anti-hunters have found a soft spot in attacking predator management and especially hound hunting, but I do not understand why many hunters agree with them. It is true that hound hunting is a bit different; the real hunt belongs to the hounds and the folks who trained them. However, cougar populations must be managed, and hound hunting is the most effective means.

In California, by statewide referendum, cougars have been protected as a non-game species for more than 30 years. When this law was enacted it was believed the state held 2,000 cougars, perhaps the largest population in the West. Today there are at least4,000 and perhaps 5,000 cougars in California, each killing and eating up to 50 deer per year. California's deer herd cannot spare 200,000 to 250,000 deer per year. Naturally, the deer herd has plummeted, livestock depredation continues to escalate, and human-cougar encounters have also increased.

Hound hunting is effective, but it is also highly selective. There is no reason to release the dogs until the track of a mature cougar is found. It is not always possible to determine a torn from a tabby by the tracks, but unlike many hunting techniques, there is another chance to walk away once the cougar is treed. Although effective, hound hunting is not a sure thing. Recently, my wife, Donna, wanted to take a cougar. We focused on northern areas where wed be hunting in snow, which is usually a bit more reliable. It still took her four attempts.

NATURAL HISTORY

The cougar is a highly skilled hunter with, proportionately, the largest and most powerful hind-quarters of any cat. This enables it to spring onto prey from as much as 40 feet away, and it can rapidly accelerate to 50 miles per hour for short sprints. Deer are the primary prey, but like all cats, cougars are opportunistic predators, and their diet includes almost anything from insects and small animals up to elk and occasionally moose.

They are extremely solitary animals. Both males and females establish territories, size seeming to vary depending primarily on abundance of prey. In some areas a male's territory may be as small as 10 square miles, but territories as large as 500 square miles have been identified. Mating can occur throughout the year, with one to six cubs born after a three-month gestation. Only the females take part in parenting, and the cubs remain with their mothers for about two years. By this time a male cub may be larger than its mother, so sightings of multiple "adult" cougars are almost always a mother with adolescent or sub-adult cubs. A female cougar will typically have a litter every three years. In the wild, life expectancy is the same as most of the great cats, perhaps eight to thirteen years.

Historically, there have been very few cougar attacks on humans, with only 10 human fatalities documented before 1970. Since then, cougars have killed more than a dozen people, a clear escalation. This probably doesn't indicate that cougars are becoming more aggressive; it is almost certainly a matter of suburban sprawl-with more intrusion into their habitat--and in some instances a reduction in natural prey.

BEST

HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES

Hunting with houndsmen in the northern Rockies of the United States and southwestern Canada, where cougars tend to be larger and winter snow conditions offer good trailing conditions.

SHOOTING AND SHOT PLACEMENT

Although a cougar is "deer-sized," it is not a tough animal. Houndsmen often prefer a .30-30 carbine because it's short, light, and plenty powerful, but handguns and lighter rifles down to the .22 WMR are often used. The main thing, however, is that on a hound hunt the shot must be very precise in order to avoid danger to the dogs. As with all cats, the heart and lungs are a bit farther back than on ungulates. Ideal shot placement is thus from the center of the shoulder rearward to just behind the shoulder ... like almost all animals, one-third up and into the body from the brisket line.

COUGAR FACTS

POPULATION

State wildlife agencies estimate 20,000 to 40,000 cougars in the United States, very likely with a similar population in southwestern Canada. Numbers in Mexico, Central America, and South America are not known, but the cougar is widespread and relatively common across much of this vast region.

MOST EXPENSIVE HUNTS

Guided hunts with good houndsmen. As with all guided hunts, prices have increased in recent years, but with cougars, costs depend heavily on experience and track record ... and so does success.

LEAST EXPENSIVE HUNTS

Do-it-yourself on public land. Odds are not high, but it is always possible to "glass up" a cougar, and they sometimes respond to varmint calls. Although tracking a cougar on foot is very difficult, with good snow conditions it is possible. The cats are out there, so why not try?

DID YOU KNOW?

According to Guinness World Records, the cougar has the most names of any animal, more than 40 in English alone. In addition to mountain lion and puma, common ones include catamount, panther, and painter.

Caption: Cougar tracks are judged by both size and length of stride. A track this size is almost certainly a big torn.
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Title Annotation:species Spotlight
Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2017
Words:1391
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