The scientific name given to mountain lions is Puma concolor, meaning “cat of one color.” Mountain lions are also called cougars, pumas, or panthers. Adult mountain lions are tan to light cinnamon in color with a white underbelly and have black on the back of their ears and the tip of their tail. Kittens are heavily spotted. Mountain lions have very long tails which can be more than a third of the total length of the animal. Males and females vary in size and weight, with males being about 1/3 larger than females. Adult males may be more than 8 feet long, including the tail, and can weigh 150 pounds or more. Adult females may grow up to 7 feet long, including the tail, and weigh an average of 90 pounds.
Mountain lions are easily distinguished from Arizona’s other wild cats—the bobcat, ocelot, and jaguar. Bobcats and ocelots are much smaller than mountain lions. Bobcats have a short, “bobbed” tail and pointed ears with tufts while ocelots have heavily spotted pelts and long, ringed tails. Jaguars are larger and heavily spotted with rosette patterns.
Mountain lions may breed at any time of the year with kittens born in any month; however, in North America the majority of births occur from May through October. Females typically first breed around 2.5 to 3 years of age while males first breed around their second year. Litter sizes of 2-4 are common and females may raise kittens in consecutive years, but around 1½ years between litters is more common. Young remain with the mother for about 11-18 months, learning the skills necessary to survive independently. Juvenile males tend to disperse much longer distances than juvenile females. Mountain lions are solitary animals with the exception of females with kittens or breeding pairs. Males and females are highly territorial and often kill other mountain lions found in their territory.
Mountain lions are stalk and ambush predators that hunt primarily at night and rely on ambush to kill their prey. Uneaten portions of a kill are cached (hidden or covered with leaves, dirt, or other debris). Typically they prey on deer, but will consume other large mammals as well, such as bighorn sheep, elk, and pronghorn. They also feed on smaller animals when necessary, such as javelina, turkey, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, rodents, and even insects. In Arizona, mountain lions are known to kill and consume domestic livestock which often creates conflicts with livestock operators.
Mountain Lion and Human Interactions
Despite having the broadest geographic distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, their elusive, solitary, and primarily nocturnal nature makes it rare to observe them in the wild, making it difficult for managers to survey and monitor. Although documented in and around lands and communities adjacent to and surrounded by wild lands, mountain lions tend to avoid human dominated-landscapes and interactions with humans, which results in relatively few reported mountain lion sightings.
While human encounters in Arizona are rare, conflicts can occur when people recreate in mountain lion habitat or when a mountain lion frequently uses human dominated-landscapes. The Department is committed to helping people learn how to behave responsibly and coexist safely in mountain lion habitat.
Distribution and Abundance
The mountain lion occurs throughout the Western Hemisphere and has one of the most extensive ranges of any land mammal, from the southern tip of Argentina in South America to northern British Columbia in North America. They live in deserts, mountains, lowlands, mangrove forests, deciduous forests, canyons, prairies, and more. When given the opportunity, their preferred habitats have rocky outcrops or dense vegetation to ambush prey from. Breeding populations of mountain lions are known to occur in at least 16 Western states and most of those states report stable to increasing mountain lion populations.
Mountain lions were extirpated from the eastern U.S. in the 1940s. However, since 1990, 10 states east of their current western range have reported mountain lion sightings, suggesting an eastward range expansion. In fact, increases in Midwestern mountain lions continue to occur, particularly of females, despite hunting of more recently established populations. This is most likely a result of immigration from mountain lion populations farther to the west. Modeling population viability of mountain lions in the Midwest suggests that they are likely to occupy large patches of Midwestern habitat in 25 years.
Though seldom observed because of their elusive nature, mountain lions are common in Arizona. They are not endangered or threatened in Arizona, and are classified as a big game species. Mountain lions are widely distributed throughout the state and have expanded into previously unoccupied areas or areas where they were once considered to be only transient. Before 2001, mountain lions in the southwestern part of Arizona were rare. Now, it is not uncommon to observe mountain lions or mountain lion sign in those mountain ranges. Those mountain lions most likely immigrated from adjacent populations in Mexico and southern Arizona.
Surveying and monitoring mountain lion populations is difficult because of their elusive and wide‐ranging behavior, and low capture probabilities. Most common approaches for estimating mountain lion abundance are not logistically or financially feasible to survey at the statewide level, so studies are typically limited to small geographic areas. Therefore, wildlife managers often use harvest data, specifically the sex and age composition of the annual harvest, to monitor long-term population trends and assure a science-based approach to regulating mountain lion harvest. These data are monitored by managers to ensure that the population maintains an appropriate composition of adults, subadults and juveniles of both sexes necessary for sustainable populations.
To collect harvest data, the Department requires hunters who harvest a mountain lion to physically present to the Department the skull and hide with proof of sex attached within 10 days of harvest. During this inspection, a premolar tooth is removed from each harvested mountain lion to accurately determine its age using cementum annuli analysis (similar to counting tree rings). Managers also collect tissue samples that may be used to genetically identify individuals, evaluate metapopulations, connectivity, dispersal and for other investigative purposes. The Department uses harvest data and adaptive management, along with information acquired through research, to guide hunt management strategies and inform land management decisions such as transportation design, alternative energy projects, and urban and rural development planning.
The Department is always seeking current and scientifically robust methods to monitor wildlife populations. Before 2018, the Department used estimates of mountain lion density from other states and applied those to areas of high, medium, and low quality habitats throughout Arizona to estimate abundance.
Currently, the Department is using statistical population reconstruction (SPR), a technique that uses age-at-harvest data, hunter effort, and estimated survival rates from GPS collared mountain lions in Arizona to estimate annual abundance. This is a practical and cost-effective method that has been applied to a variety of species and uses data already collected by most state and provincial wildlife agencies. SPR allows managers to monitor population trends and respond quickly to any changes in abundance or other parameters estimated by the model (recruitment, harvest rates, and survival). The Department will continue to investigate other models and refine the current model by incorporating survival data collected from recently collared mountain lions across the state. The average annual population estimate from 2004-2020 of 2,876 total mountain lions, based on the statistical population reconstruction model, supports previous abundance estimates based on density.
Mountain lions were classified as a “predatory” animal by the territorial legislature in 1919 and were subject to a bounty of $50 dollars. This status continued until 1970 when the mountain lion was classified as a “big game” animal, and a tag was required to hunt one. In 1981, a mandatory reporting requirement was instituted by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. Reported data indicates that mountain lion harvests gradually increased over time but have remained fairly consistent over the past 20 years and range between 250 and 350 animals per year, of which approximately 9-13 percent are taken for livestock depredation incidents. Spotted kittens and females accompanied by spotted kittens are protected by state statutes, and reports of any illegal harvest are investigated thoroughly by wildlife managers. Since 2006, successful hunters are required to have their mountain lion physically inspected by the Arizona Game and Fish Department for identification of age and sex of the animal and collection of important biological information. Wildlife managers use these data to closely monitor harvest and ensure a sustainable population.
Zone management is a widely used approach whereby large tracts of land, in this case Game Management Units, are partitioned into zones based on similarities in habitat, terrain, hunter effort, management objectives, etc. This method incorporates mountain lion biology, and their spatial and social organization at the landscape scale. From 2011-2016, the Department managed mountain lions using two different zones; Standard Management and Minimal Occurrence. Management objectives in each zone were based on historical estimates of mountain lion density and prey population abundance. The majority of the state was included in the Standard Management Zone, with a bag limit of 1, where both prey species and mountain lions occur at higher densities and the objective was to maintain a sustainable mountain lion population.
In the Minimal Occurrence Zone, mainly the southwestern portion of Arizona where historically low densities of mountain lions and their prey occur, mountain lions were managed for lower numbers. To maintain a smaller mountain lion population in those parts of the state, bag limits were increased to 3 with daylong hunting hours. Recognizing that this approach was ineffective at influencing harvest, the Minimal Occurrence Zone, daylong hunting hours, and increased bag limit were removed starting with the 2017–2018 hunt season.
Although a zone management approach is still used, beginning with the 2018-2019 season, Arizona is now divided into Mountain Lion Management Zones with harvest thresholds. Management zones consist of a single unit or grouping of biologically similar units that distribute harvest more evenly across the state and allow for better management of regional mountain lion populations. Harvest thresholds for each zone are established by estimating total mountain lion abundance in each zone and applying a 14% harvest rate. When the harvest threshold is met in a particular zone, that zone closes to the take of mountain lion for the remainder of the season. Beginning with the 2018 season, the season length also changed from a year-round season to a 9-month season with a summer closure, when research shows that mountain lion births are at their peak.
Adult female survival tends to be the most influential demographic parameter influencing mountain lion population growth potential. When adult female harvest represents a substantial portion of the total harvest (20-42%) a decrease in mountain lion abundance often occurs, suggesting that the proportion of adult females in the harvest may be a useful indicator of trends in hunted populations. Our management objective is to protect the adult female segment of the population.
Previously, the department evaluated and managed adult female harvest using 6 zones which encompass multiple game management units. Those zones are delineated by landscape features that may present barriers to dispersal, both natural (e.g. rivers, canyons) or manmade (e.g. highways, canals). Because reduced harvest of adult females is likely a viable management strategy for sustaining mountain lion populations, statewide harvest trends were managed to keep adult female harvest <35% of the total take within the standard management zone. If the 2-year mean adult female harvest comprised >35% of the total harvest for a zone, female harvest thresholds or shortened hunt seasons were established to reduce the overall female harvest in that zone. Although adult female harvest in Arizona never exceeded 35% in any zone since implementation in 2011 (range = 0-30%), more recent research suggests the lower end of this percentage range is a more sustainable limit.
Therefore, beginning with the 2018 mountain lion season, adult female harvest has been managed to not exceed 25% of the total mountain lion harvest within each of the mountain lion management zones (3-year mean), and in 2023, females of any age that show evidence of prior breeding will be considered an adult. Additionally, beginning in the 2023 season, the percent of all females of any age harvested will be managed at <50% of the total zone harvest. Female harvest thresholds will be established in zones with a 3-year mean female harvest that exceed 50%.
Status: Common though elusive
Distribution: Found statewide, and throughout North and South America
Habitat: Desert and forested mountains with broken terrain and steep slopes
Prey: Deer, elk, javelina, bighorn sheep, small mammals, and livestock
Range: 10-150 miles, with males ranging further
Live Weight: 75-150 pounds, with males being larger
Breeding Period: Year Round
Young Appear: Year Round, with a peak in summer months
Average Number of Young: 3, born with black spots that disappear with age
Predators: Practically none but mountain lions are known to kill other mountain lions