How To Handle A Mountain Lion Encounter

Puma concolor aka: mountain lion, cougar, panther, puma, catamount.

It’s said that there are over 40 different names for this elusive creature, but no matter how you know them; you know them.

Pretty much everyone I know who spends any amount of time in the wilderness has voiced their concern about meeting a mountain lion out there. I spend a lot of time in the backcountry myself, and I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some fear of having an encounter with a mountain lion (or any predator for that matter).

But to be fair, mountain lions are actually not my biggest concern out in the backcountry.

Why?

Because I’ve taken the time to understand mountain lion behavior, and I know that mountain lion encounters are exceedingly rare.

It’s still a terrifying thought to come face-to-face with a predator that is immensely more powerful than you. However, this shouldn’t stop anyone from recreating outdoors, so let’s get to know Puma concolor a little better…

Mountain Lion Facts

  • These big cats are agile predators. They can leap up to 15 feet high and sprint up to 50 mph.
  • Adult mountain lions can weigh between 80 and 180 pounds, and be 5-8 feet long from nose to tip of tail.
  • They are elusive, solitary, and shy. Mountain lions don’t usually want to be seen, and will typically disappear before you even know they are there.
  • Mountain lion used to roam freely throughout North America, but hunting and human invasion of mountain lion territory has nearly eliminated them from much of the land. The Mountain Lion Foundation is compiling a state-by-state guide for mountain lion status, but in general, most lions are located West of the Rockies.
  • They are extremely territorial towards one another. One male mountain lion can have an average territory around 100 square miles that will overlap with the smaller territories of 3-4 female mountain lions. Due to their territorial nature, growing mountain lion populations does not mean there is a higher population density in a given area, it means that mountain lion territory is expanding.
  • Mountain lions are primarily nocturnal, and are most active from dusk to dawn. They may travel up to 15 miles in a night.
  • These big kitties are opportunistic hunters, and will eat anything from deer and pigs to raccoons and squirrels. They kill by attacking from behind and delivering a lethal bite to the back of the neck.
  • Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. There have only been 125 reported attacks in North America in the last 100 years. Compare that to the 5-10 moose attacks that occur every year and it’s easy to relax a little bit about mountain lions (and start worrying about moose). Not to mention the 120 fatalities a year from deer-car collisions…

What to do if you encounter mountain lion

So now that we know a little bit about our large kitty friends, how do you react in the rare instance of encountering one?

Don’t run. Running away from a large cat may stimulate their natural instinct to chase. Instead, directly face the cat, stand tall, and make eye contact. Pick up small children and small pets. Stand your ground or back away slowly. Do not turn your back on the mountain lion.

Do not approach. Moving towards a lion may come across as a threat, especially if there are cubs (kittens) present. Mother lions will be protective of her cubs and are more likely to become aggressive. More than likely, the lion is looking for a way to get away from you, give them space, don’t corner them, and don’t follow them.

Look big. Do not crouch down or stoop over. The idea is to look big, tall, and human. It’s said that mountain lions don’t recognize humans as prey, but if you stoop or bend over, it’s easy for them to see you as a four-legged prey animal. You can open your jacket or slowly raise your arms above your head to look bigger, and stand close to the others in your group.

Make noise. Yell, shout, and make lots of noise. Bang your hiking poles or water bottles together, anything that will make a loud noise. Do not make noise that could be confused as prey, such as whimpering or whining. Speak and yell with a loud, authoritative voice.

Throw things. Aim for the ground directly in front of the cat. There is no need to actually hit the cat unless it is acting aggressive and/or advancing on you. If you can pick up rocks or branches without stooping over, throw those items. If you  have a backpack on, you can retrieve and throw items like water bottles without having to bend over. Don’t throw everything you own though, hold onto anything that could be used as a weapon in case the cat attacks, like a hiking pole or a metal or hard plastic water bottle.

Fight back. If attacked, fight back with everything you have. Protect your neck and throat, and use whatever you can to hit or stab the lion. Mountain lions have been diverted using backpacks, rocks, branches, jackets and hands. Don’t give up. Fight fiercely.

Don’t Be Deterred

While these cats seem very big and scary, in reality, you’ll probably never know how close you actually come to a mountain lion due to their shy and evasive behavior. However, if you’re recreating in mountain lion territory, it’s a good idea to know what to do just in case you do have an encounter.

Being fearful of these apex predators is normal and natural, but keep in mind how unlikely it is that you’ll actually need to use it.

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