At one time, mountain lions were one of the most widely distributed terrestrial mammals in the Western Hemisphere.
From coast to coast, north across Canada and to Alaska, and south through Mexico, Central America and South America to Tierra del Fuego, these large cats lived virtually everywhere.
Today's North American mountain lion range is constricted primarily to the western third of the lower 48 contiguous states, Canada and southeast Alaska. There are also scattered lion populations in the Deep South, including Florida, and a few holdings in Arkansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York and Maine. Recent confirmed and unconfirmed sightings are being reported with increasing regularity throughout the Midwest as well.
Perhaps no other native mammal has as many and varied names as the mountain lion. Its Latin name, Felis concolor, as most Latin names are, is descriptive and appropriate. Felis means, "cat" and concolor is the Latin name for "one color" (current nomenclature records genus as Puma). With the exception of the spotted coats of mountain lion kittens, or cubs as they are also called, adult lion pelage is spotless and mostly a single color of various shades of tan. Mountain lions also have dark and light facial, chin, throat and belly markings.
Other names common to the species include puma, cougar, panther, mountain screamer, American lion, lepardo, leopard, painter, mountain devil, Leon, catamount, long-tailed cat, king cat, lion and tiger. More than 100 names exist for this one animal alone, including numerous other Native American, Spanish and English names.
It is believed that the majority of mountain lions that occasionally wander into parts of Minnesota are cats that have drifted from the Black Hills of South Dakota or the Badlands of North Dakota. It is also believed that some mountain lions observed in Minnesota and other atypical locales, are captive cats that have either been purposely released by their human handlers, or are escapees.
Natural resource agencies in some states, including Minnesota, are sometimes falsely accused of releasing mountain lions into the wild to control burgeoning deer populations. This notion of translocating, or "planting" mountain lions throughout unoccupied territory is, simply put, untrue. Truth told, some mountain lion populations might be expanding their current range into footholds they were once common in but extirpated from long ago. Still, it does not appear that Minnesota is, or ever will be, primary lion habitat.
Mountain lions are the second largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar, rarely seen north of Mexico, is larger. Male mountain lions can be as long as nine feet in total length, which includes its three-foot-long tail, and can attain a shoulder height of about 30 or more inches. While records exist of 200 pound and heavier individual male lions, males typically weigh from 150 to 180 pounds. Females are somewhat smaller.
Deer are the number one prey of mountain lions. An adult lion will kill one deer every seven to 10 days and consume around 50 deer per year. The long-tailed cats are very proficient hunters. Like most wild cats, with the exception of African lions, mountain lions hunt in solitude and do not form prides. The only time mountain lions hunt together is when a female takes her kittens along to teach them skills they'll need in order to survive on their own.
Housecats hunt mice in the same manner a mountain lion hunts deer. The big cat stalks its prey upwind, walking, stopping, watching and listening, and walking some more -- but mostly watching and listening. Once a deer is observed, the mountain lion lowers itself close to the ground and slinks forward, shoulder blades protruding above its back, its belly scraping the earth as it moves, and the tip of its tail twitching to and fro.
Once the cat is within two bounds or less, usually about 15-30 feet, the mountain lion will gather its hind legs underneath its belly and spring forward. In a common kill technique, the cat is upon the deer's back in as little as two or three bounds, holds itself securely with all four feet and bites the deer's vertebrae. Once the prey is killed, the lion feasts on internal organs first, forsaking the stomach and its contents, then feeds on the muscle tissue. The cat will also bury and cache its prey until the carcass is consumed or it becomes too rancid.
Unlike mountain lions, bobcats are abundant in Minnesota. In fact, few people ever observe them in the wild. As well, Canada lynx are known to exist in Minnesota's far north. And, though mountain lions are seen from time to time in Minnesota, most reported observations turn out to be mistaken identities.
To illustrate, trail cameras, which are being used extensively by hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike, are capturing many interesting images of wildlife. These cameras are used to monitor game trails, baiting sites, fields, wetlands and so forth. I have examined many photographs taken by these cameras that people have brought to me. And in every instance where the animal in question was thought to be a mountain lion, it turned out to be something else. Everything from housecats to bobcats to fisher, deer, dogs, foxes, wolves -- you name it.
Indeed, mountain lions are exceedingly rare in Minnesota. In fact, even throughout their principal range of western United States where they are plentiful, few people see them. Minnesota's foremost species of wildcat, on the other hand, is the much smaller and numerous bobcat.
Until next week, be sure to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org