Educational Series: Cougars Need Our Help After Centuries of Persecution

By Nick Engelfried
Cougars, the largest wild cat historically found throughout North America, are also one of the most elusive and misunderstood of the continent’s mammals. Sometimes known by the alternative names mountain lion, puma, or panther, these feline predators seldom want to have anything to do with people–but human persecution and encroachment on their habitat threaten their survival. For cougars to thrive in wild places in decades to come, it is essential that we come to better appreciate their needs and the important role they play in the ecosystems they inhabit.

Among all of the wild cats found in the Americas, only the jaguar exceeds the cougar in size. But while jaguars are still found throughout much of Central and South America, the species never lived in the northern United States and today has been reduced to a tiny number of known individuals surviving near the border with Mexico. Cougars, in contrast, can still be found throughout much of the Western United States and Canada–even though their range, too, has been drastically reduced.

Cougars once thrived from coast to coast, with a range that included almost all of North and South America, excepting only the very far north of Canada and Alaska. In fact, these versatile hunters had a range larger than that of any other native, non-human mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Part of the cougar’s success can be chalked up to their ability to survive in a wide variety of habitats, from dense forests to deserts. Today, cougars still live in wild landscapes throughout the Western United States, while an isolated population of one subspecies clings to survival in Florida. However, decades of persecution have eliminated them from almost the entire eastern half of the continent.

For millennia, the Indigenous peoples of what is now North America lived in harmony with wild cougars. It was only the arrival of European colonists that cast doubt on the species’ future. Like most mammalian carnivores in North America, cougars were hunted relentlessly throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, mainly because they were believed to present a threat to livestock and game animals by colonists who did not yet understand the important role of apex predators in natural ecosystems. By the time attitudes towards predators began to change, the cats had already been exterminated over much of their historic range.

Although hunting presented the biggest danger to wild cougars early on, today the greatest threat is habitat loss. The conversion of forests and plains to agricultural land and cities has left cougars in much of the U.S. with nowhere to call home, and has inhibited their returning to areas where they were once hunted to local extinction. Even in the West, the remaining strongholds of cougar habitat are steadily shrinking amid an onslaught of development and conversion of wild lands for human use. One of the biggest challenges for cougar conservation is that the cats have very large territories, with that of a male spanning as much as 150-200 square miles. Clearly, it takes a lot of wild space to support even a relatively small population of cougars. But even in places where much land remains undeveloped, human barriers like roads and highways crisscross much of the remaining cougar habitat, posing a serious danger to the cats.

Fortunately, groundbreaking efforts are underway to connect cougar habitat and provide safe passage for them across busy freeways–especially in California, where researchers have been studying the impact of vehicle collisions on cougar populations for two decades. Wildlife crossings, which consist of large bridges that provide animals with a safe way to reach the other side of a road, hold promise as a way to reduce cougar fatalities. The planned Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, located outside of Los Angeles, will be the largest such project in the world when construction is completed in 2025. The finished bridge, which will span a busy section of US Highway 101, will be 210 feet long and 165 feet across, and planted with native vegetation to provide shelter for wary cougars and other animals.

The Wallis Annenberg Crossing is an example of the kind of innovative approach to conservation that cougars desperately need–and populations in other parts of the United States must receive similar levels of help. A case in point is the Florida panther, a critically endangered cougar subspecies now reduced to a tiny fraction of its historic range.

The U.S. was originally home to at least three subspecies of cougar: the western cougar, eastern cougar, and Florida panther. Eastern cougars suffered the most from habitat loss and hunting, with conservation efforts coming too late to help the subspecies. In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially recognized it as extinct. The vast majority of cougars in this country today belong to the western subspecies, the lone exception being a population of Florida panthers clinging to survival near the southern tip of their namesake state. While once found widely throughout the U.S. South, today no more than 130 Florida panthers are believed to survive in wild areas like Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Among the threats facing the last Florida panthers are urban areas and highways expanding into their habitat, oil development around Big Cypress, and pollution from pesticides and other toxins. The fact that the beleaguered subspecies has persisted for this long is a testament to decades of conservation work and the will to survive of these majestic wild cats–who can safely co-exist with humans when given the chance.

Although predators are no longer hunted to extinction as a matter of government policy, a barrier to their survival continues to be the continued perception of cougars as dangerous animals to be feared. In reality, there have been fewer than thirty confirmed fatal cougar attacks in the United States within the last 100 years, despite the fact that the cats are found in national parks and other wild places that are visited by thousands of people every single year. Cougars who threaten humans are behaving in a highly abnormal manner, usually because they are injured or starving. What cougars want most is to stay away from us, and they are experts at vanishing before we can even spot them. In fact, if you have hiked in many wild spots in the Western United States, there is a good chance that at some point a cougar has seen you–then quickly disappeared into the trees without a trace!

Cougars, one of North America’s true apex predators, have coexisted peacefully with humans for thousands of years. Over the last two centuries, persecution and habitat loss have threatened their ability to survive over much of their historic range, but with enough help these majestic cats can thrive again. From protecting the last Florida panther habitat to building highway-spanning wildlife crossings, we as a society have a lot of work to do to ensure cougars can once again roam the continent without fear.

Photo credit: Malcolm

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In which of these places could you historically have found wild cougars?
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Which of these cougar subspecies has been declared extinct?
True or false: A male cougar’s territory can cover as much as 200 square miles
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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