Understanding the Snoqualmie Valley’s cat of many names: the cougar

I live and walk my dog on a tree-lined road. Occasionally we see wild animals along our way: deer, elk, bears, bobcats, birds, and small mammals.

One recent day during our morning stroll, two deer popped out of the trees in front of us, ran across the road and disappeared from view. Just as I was formulating the thought, “I wonder what has those two in such a rush?”, a huge cat charged out of the trees in obvious pursuit of fast food. Excited, we walked to the point where we saw everyone disappear before I thought, “Maybe we’d better go back home.”

Oh my GOSH! What just happened?

Photo: Priscilla DuPreez, Unsplash

We had seen one of the most elusive animals in the Snoqualmie Valley: the Cougar.

Wow! I suppose some think it would be a reason for fear, but frankly I just thought it was really cool. The cat clearly knew we were there, but contrary to popular belief, it wanted nothing to do with us, its focus was on the deer, the meal of choice for this large kitty.

An ambush predator, cougars stalk and pounce, usually with a short chase as we witnessed, just like your kitty at home with a spider or mouse. In fact, the cougar is more closely related to a domestic cat than it is a lion or tiger.

The cougar, or Puma concolor, is the second largest cat in the Americas behind the rare Jaguar, and fourth largest worldwide. One way to categorize cats as big or small is whether they roar or purr. The hyoid bone supports the tongue, if it’s flexible the cat can roar.

Cougars purr, so are a small cat. They communicate with growls, snarls, spitting and hissing as well as through scent and body language. Mothers and kittens call with chirps and whistles. A female’s “caterwaul” to mate “sounds like a woman screaming.” The cougar is the largest of the Felinae, the purring sub-family of the entire cat family Felidae.

Though fourth in size, pumas are first in names. Their range stretches from the Canadian Yukon to the Southern Andes, wider than any large wild terrestrial animal in the Western Hemisphere. Due to that large reach, the ghost cat holds a Guinness world record for the most named animal coming in with 18 native South American, 25 native North American, and 40 English names.

The name we use in the Pacific Northwest evolved over time. The cat was named and renamed by naturalists starting in the 17th century before finally being translated into English – and cougar (and sometimes Mountain Lion) became our regional name for the big tawny Felid.

Adult males, “toms,” usually weigh up to 140 pounds, in rare cases up to 180 pounds, are 7 to 8 feet long from nose to tip of tail. Females weigh in at 110 pounds, rarely more, and measure up to 5 to 6 feet in length. Cougars are sexually dimorphic in color, size, and have a tawny to reddish coat much like a lion. Their young look very much like domestic cats with blackish-brown spots.

Mostly solitary, occasionally cougars share kills. Mothers and kittens live in a family group for about 14 months to two years during which time juveniles learn crucial survival skills. Typical litters are one to four kittens, averaging two, but the survival rate to adulthood is just over one per litter.

The cougar is an apex carnivore with no other species (other than humans) preying upon them. They have occasional conflicts with wolves and bears that result in fatal injuries, but generally surrender kills to bears and groups of wolves. Cougar prefer deer and elk, but eat smaller animals. A true carnivore, one who requires animal flesh to survive, they kill about once every 7-12 days.

Research by Dr. Mark Elbroch, lead scientist for Panthera’s Puma Program, shows that “mountain lions benefit ecological communities by increasing local biodiversity and ecosystem health in areas they inhabit.”

Cougars provide more food to their ecological communities than any other top species. According to Elbroch, “Mountain lion food sharing spreads nutrients through the ecosystem and strengthens entire communities, bolstering ecological health as well as an ecosystem’s ability to recover following unexpected crises, like a disease outbreak or wildfire.”

Washington State has approximately 40,000 square miles of habitat, averaging just over 5 cougars per 100 square miles for an estimated 2,300 independent cats. Male territories average 100 to 200 square miles, overlapping territories of 2 to 4 females.

Cougars were extirpated from most of their eastern North American range. We’ve spent two centuries demonizing and hunting them down. Hoping to reduce cougar mortalities, Washington voters passed initiative 655 which prohibits using hounds to hunt black bears, cougars, bobcats, and lynx.  

Recently, various Washington counties’ Sheriff’s departments have deputized hunters, “posses,” to circumvent hound hunting laws and kill cougars. The numbers tell the tale, from 2012 to 2017, according to WDFW records, hounds were involved in only 5% of cougar mortalities. In 2018 and 2019, it’s 20%. In 2019, the 78 cats killed using hounds exceeded the 2012 to 2017 total, sometimes just because someone saw a cougar.         

The Mountain Lion Foundation has suggestions on how to keep you, your home, your pets and livestock safe from conflict. We cannot just plop livestock into a heavily wooded area and expect it to be safe from predators. Nor can we eliminate an important member of the environment we so cherish. We live in cougar country and know their benefits – and with some effort to coexist, we can preserve the way of life we enjoy in the valley.

Thanks to Bob McCoy of the Mountain Lion Foundation for his help and wisdom

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