Mountain Lions

Background:

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct. Based on its extensive research, the Service concluded this subspecies of big cat had disappeared from the east by the 1930s.

Mountain Lion, Photo Courtesy of Bill Lea

Photo courtesy of Bill Lea

While mountain lions were once common in Kentucky, research shows the state has not supported a wild population of mountain lions for more than a century. In the landmark 1974 book “Mammals of Kentucky,” authors Roger W. Barbour and Wayne H. Davis noted there were no valid records of a mountain lion in the state after 1899.

Currently, the nearest wild population of mountain lions resides in Nebraska, more than 900 miles from Kentucky. A small population of panthers – fewer than 200 animals – also lives in southwestern Florida. 

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources receive reports each year of mountain lions roaming the state. However, there have been only two confirmations: a female kitten struck by a car in Floyd County in June 1997, and an adult male mountain lion dispatched by a Kentucky Fish and Wildlife conservation officer in Bourbon County on December 15, 2014. DNA testing revealed the kitten had South American ancestry, leading to the conclusion that it was of captive origin. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologists rely on physical, verifiable evidence to assess mountain lion sightings in the state.

The increasing number of big cat reports in the state coincides with the return of the bobcat to Kentucky’s landscape. Bobcats, which were considered rare as late as 1974, have increased in range and abundance throughout Kentucky. They are now found in every county in the state. Bobcats may have solid brown coats, which can cause people to misidentify them when glimpsed in low light. In addition, it is no coincidence that reports of mountain lions have increased with the popularity of the internet- which enables the unintentional and intentional sharing of inaccurate information.

 


Radiocollared bobcat captured on remote camera,
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
 

Mountain lion captured on a remote camera in
Lincoln County, MO
Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of
Conservation 
 

A good indicator of the presence of mountain lions is the number of animals killed on the road. In Florida, with its small population of panthers, about two dozen of the big cats are killed on the road each year. Kentucky’s tally is the one female kitten struck by a vehicle in Floyd County in 1997, and that animal was of captive origin.

The rising popularity of motion-activated trail cameras deployed year round throughout Kentucky’s woods and fields have yet to produce a confirmed image of a mountain lion in the state. Likewise, more than a quarter million hunters take to the state’s woods and fields each year for deer season and no one has taken a mountain lion. Several years ago, a hunter shot what he said was a mountain lion with his bow. DNA tests on the recovered arrow revealed that he had actually shot a bobcat.

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologists are monitoring the expansion of cougar populations from the western U.S. To help protect the public from escaped captive animals, the department has banned the possession of mountain lions as pets since 2005.


Radiocollared mountain lion captured on a remote camera in North Dakota.
Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish Department


Facts:

  • The scientific name for a mountain lion is Puma concolor, which loosely translates to describe a cat with one color.
  • Mountain Lion, Photo Courtesy of Bill Lea

    Photo courtesy of Bill Lea

  • The mountain lion has many common names including cougar, puma, catamount, panther and ghost cat.
  • Adults typically weigh 90-160 pounds with a robust tail that can be one-third as long as the cat’s body.
  • Mountain lions are a large cat with short tawny brown fur and a lighter white underbelly.
  • Animals commonly misidentified as mountain lions include coyotes, bobcats, housecats, dogs and white-tailed deer.
  • “Black panthers” exist only as the melanistic (black) phases of the leopard (Panthera pardus) in Africa and Asia, and the jaguar (Panthera onca) of Mexico and Central and South America.
  • The nearest known reproducing populations of western mountain lions are in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas.
  • In recent years, young male mountain lions dispersing from their home ranges in search of new territory have been confirmed in Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri.
  • The presence of a lone mountain lion does not mean the area has an established population.
  • Report a suspected mountain lion to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife by calling the department’s Information Center during weekday working hours at 1-800-858-1549 or by emailing info.center@ky.gov


Life History:

Mountain Lion, Photo Courtesy of Bill Lea

Female mountain lion treed by researchers in
Washington state.
Photo courtesy of Rich Beausoleil,
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Few large mammals generate more intrigue, folklore and misinformation than the mountain lion. While this predator once roamed much of the U.S., their numbers plummeted from predator eradication campaigns, hunting and habitat loss. Mountain lions now occupy only a fraction of their former range in the western United States and Florida. However, the number of mountain lions in the west is increasing. As a result, dispersing males wandering from their home territories occasionally show up further east. Currently, the nearest breeding range of mountain lions is located in northwestern Nebraska, approximately 900 miles from Kentucky.

 

Classification:  Mountain lions are carnivores classified within the Family Felidae. Its closest cousins are the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatas). Biologists continue to debate the taxonomy of mountain lions, particularly the question of whether North American mountain lions comprise a single or multiple subspecies. 

General Description: Mountain lions are easy to distinguish from other large cats in North America by their large body and long tail. The short, tawny brown fur that covers most of their body easily blends with most surroundings. Short black fur covers the backs of the ears, the tip of the tail and the sides of the muzzle. Mountain lions have sharp, curved claws to help them climb and bring down prey. Mountain lions usually retract their claws when walking.

Body length:  5 – 8 ½ feet  
Ear length:  3 – 4 inches
Tail length:  21 – 35 inches  
Weight:  90 – 160 pounds

Behavior:  Mountain lions are solitary animals except during the breeding season or when females are raising kittens. The young typically remain with their mother for 2 years. During this time, the young animals learn from their mother how to hunt and survive. Once the family breaks up, subadult males may travel (disperse) hundreds of miles in search of a new home range.

Diet: Mountain lions are strict carnivores; their primary prey is deer. If no deer are available, they will eat small to medium-sized mammals and sometimes livestock.

Breeding Cycle: Females can breed when they are 3 years old. The mother typically produces a litter of two to three kittens every other year. Lions give birth in a den; sites may include rocky outcrops or crevices, caves and brushy areas. Newborn kittens are blind at birth. Kittens have buff-colored fur spotted with black. Young animals begin accompanying their mother on hunting trips once they reach two months old.

Movements and Dispersal:  Mountain lions are wide-ranging animals. Males have home ranges (territories) that cover 50 – 150 square miles. Female home ranges are roughly half that of males. Young female mountain lions may incorporate part of their mother’s home range into their own range. Young males may travel hundreds of miles in search of a permanent home range.


Evidence:

Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that Kentucky is home to wild mountain lions. Any mountain lion appearing in the state would likely be an escaped (or released) captive animal. Kentucky has banned the possession of mountain lions as pets since 2005. While western mountain lion populations continue to grow and their occurrence has been confirmed in the Midwest, young wandering males from those areas have not been documented in Kentucky to date. 

Biologists at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources are interested in documenting any credible evidence of mountain lions in the state. The following information will help avoid misidentification of an animal.


Treed mountain lion in Platte County, MO
Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation

Photographs:

  • Remote trail cameras are a great tool for documenting mountain lions.
  • Adult male mountain lions stand about 30 inches at the shoulder. Use plants in the photo to help gauge the actual size of an animal.
  • The tail will be approximately one-third of the overall body length.
  • Mountain lions do not have spots.
  • Bobcats have a white spot behind each ear; mountain lions do not have these markings.

Tracks:

  • Cats typically retract their claws when walking; claw marks will not be visible in tracks.
  • Cat toes are tear-drop shaped; dog or coyote tracks are more rounded.
  • Dog tracks are oval shaped while mountain lion tracks are usually wider than long.
  • Mountain lion tracks generally measure no more than 3 1/2" long.

 




Illustrations courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation


Report a Mountain Lion:

Good evidence is the best way to determine the presence of a mountain lion. By following the guidelines below, reports of mountain lions can be better evaluated for authenticity.

 
Mountain lion captured on a remote camera in Iowa County, Wisconsin
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources


Photographs:

  1. Original electronic images should be provided to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
  2. Do not Photoshop, crop, enhance or otherwise alter the image.
  3. Images taken off the Internet or a Facebook post have questionable credibility.
  4. Provide all images containing the animal in question (not just the “best” image).
  5. Record the date and time the image was captured.
  6. Provide the county and location where the image was captured.
  7. Submit electronic images with all pertinent information via email to info.center@ky.gov

Tracks:

  1. Provide Kentucky Fish and Wildlife with a clear photograph of the track.
  2. Do not Photoshop, crop, enhance or otherwise alter the image.
  3. The track should be clean, clear and easy to see.
  4. Remember that if a track shows claw marks, it is likely not a mountain lion.
  5. Lay a dollar bill, coin or ruler beside the track for the photograph.
  6. Provide the length and width of the track.
  7. Provide the county and location where the track was found.
  8. Submit electronic images with this information via email to info.center@ky.gov.

Note: tracks may be preserved for inspection by securely covering with a 5-gallon bucket.

Most reports of mountain lions can be confirmed or disproved by providing this information. If the physical evidence supports the possibility of a mountain lion, a Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologist may wish to visit the site for an evaluation.

If You See a Mountain Lion:

Follow these recommendations in the rare event you see or encounter a mountain lion:

  • NEVER run from a mountain lion as this may trigger a natural chase response.
  • Immediately pick up small children so they are not tempted to run.
  • If encountered, face the animal and slowly back away while talking loudly.
  • Make yourself appear larger by waving your arms or shaking nearby branches.
  • Immediately report the sighting by calling Kentucky Fish and Wildlife at 1-800-858-1549 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Eastern time), or 1-800-25-ALERT (1-800-252-5378) after regular business hours.

Per KRS 150.172, a person may kill any wildlife in self-defense or defense of another person. Any mountain lion killed or found dead in Kentucky must be surrendered to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife within 24 hours for genetic testing and physical examination.


Hoaxes:

Over the last 10 years, the Internet has made it exceptionally easy for people to generate mountain lion hoaxes. A hoaxster typically uses a legitimate mountain lion photograph taken in another state then claims the image was taken in Kentucky.

Some hoaxsters find it amusing to scare people with false claims backed by photo “evidence.” Others believe the information is true and spread it without questioning whether it’s real. Following are photos used in the most widespread mountain lion Internet hoaxes in Kentucky. Before forwarding a mountain lion “report” to your friends, first scroll down and see if any of the photos match.


Hoax:  This is one of the most widely circulated mountain lion hoax photographs circulating on the Internet today.
The hoaxster claims this image was taken in Kentucky or a number of other states in the eastern U.S.

The Truth:  This is a real photo - - but it was actually taken in south Texas on Feb. 15, 2009.


 
The Hoax:  Several people contacted the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Information Center after a hoaxster
claimed this mountain lion was killed around Cadiz in western Kentucky.

The Truth:  This is a real photo of a mountain lion struck and killed by a vehicle in northern Arizona
in the winter of 2007.



The Hoax: The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Information Center received many emails of the above image in 2011. Most people believed this trail camera image was taken in eastern Kentucky. Some claimed it was taken on Black Mountain near Cumberland, while others gave the location as Knox County.

The Truth:  This is a real photo of a mountain lion in western Montana.  It was taken by a remote camera 
in the summer of 2010. 



Internet Hoax:  The KDFWR has received many emails of the above image with repeated claims that the image was captured by a remote trail camera in Pendleton County, KY in December 2013 and Whitley County, KY in February 2015.

The Truth:  This image is that of a melanistic (black phase) leopard that was photographed on a remote
camera within a captive facility located in South Africa.


Other Contacts:

Click on the links below for additional information regarding mountain lions: