General Cougar Biology
- What is the life cycle of a cougar?
- How long do cougars live in the wild and what are their main sources of mortality?
- Do cougars travel alone or in groups?
- What do cougars eat?
- Do cougars overpopulate?
- Do cougars reduce their prey populations?
- Do cougars prey on livestock?
- What are goals for cougar management in Washington?
- How many cougars live in Washington?
- Are cougars hunted in Washington?
- May ranchers and farmers kill cougars that damage livestock or property?
- Do cougars pose a significant threat to public safety?
- How can I be safe while hiking or recreating in cougar habitat?
- Does a cougar sighting mean there are more in the area?
- How can people living in cougar country avoid attracting cougars?
- Will more hunting or removal of cougars increase safety?
General Cougar Biology
Roughly every other year, mature female cougars give birth to between one and four kittens, although two or three is typical. The kittens remain with their mother for about 12 to 19 months while they learn the hunting skills necessary to survive. Then the mother will drive them off and they will set out to establish their own home ranges. Dispersing juveniles are particularly at risk of coming into conflict with resident cougars and with human interests.
In the wild, adult male cougars typically live until 10 to 12 years of age while females live somewhat longer. Cougars die from a variety of human-caused and natural factors, including sport hunting, predator control activities, collisions with automobiles, interactions with other cougars, diseases, and accidents (e.g., injuries obtained while hunting prey). Where it is permitted, sport hunting is the main cause of death for adult cougars. Where hunting is not prohibited, interactions with other cougars, disease and accidents appear to be the three most common causes of death.
Cougars are generally solitary in nature. However, a female with adult-sized kittens may be mistaken for a “pride” of cougars. A female cares for her kittens until they are 13 to 24 months old, at which time they may be as large as or larger than their mother, giving the impression that they are not solitary.
Cougars’ principal prey includes deer and elk, but they catch prey as small as deer mice and as large as moose calves. Other prey includes coyotes, rabbits, rodents, raccoons, beaver, and on occasion, pets and livestock.
Usually a cougar kills only one large animal at a time. A large male cougar in the Cascade Mountains will kill one deer sized prey every 7 to 10 days, or an elk sized prey every nine to twelve days.
No. Cougars self-regulate their populations, meaning that the number of resident cougars on the landscape is limited by the amount of available space and prey. Also, females have small litters, typically about two kittens.
Male cougars are highly territorial, establishing and defending a home range free of other males so that they have exclusive access to reproductive females.
Cougars’ social structure and their status as a top-tier predators translates into low population numbers of resident cougars, approximately four (4)) cougars per 100 square miles. One of the highest mortality factors for cougars, other than human-caused mortality, and a primary reason they maintain a low population density, is the killing of each other, especially males killing other males for territory, food, or a reproductive female.
While cougars can alter prey populations as seen in the diagram above, they rarely limit the growth of healthy elk and deer populations that are below habitat carrying capacity.
Cougars rarely cause substantial declines in prey populations. Cougars co-evolved with their prey over millennia and there is no evidence that predation by cougars limits the growth of healthy elk and deer populations. There are rare situations where cougars impact a prey population’s growth rate, such as when prey numbers fall to critically low levels. However, most often other factors cause deer and elk population declines, such as habitat loss, changes in habitat quality, disease, weather, hunter harvest, road kills, and poaching.
Yes. However, cougars rarely attack domestic livestock, but if they do, individual producers can suffer losses. Weather, disease, and birthing problems have a much greater effect on livestock than cougars. In Washington, domestic sheep, goats, and llamas are more vulnerable to predation than are cattle and horses. Studies show, though, that proper animal husbandry practices substantially reduce livestock loss. Find out more about good husbandry practices at:
In 2008, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife completed its game management plan to lay out its goals and approaches for managing wildlife in the state through 2015. WDFW’s statewide goals for cougar are:
- Preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage cougar and their habitats to ensure healthy, productive populations.
- Minimize threats to public safety and private property from cougars.
- Manage cougar for a variety of recreational, educational and aesthetic purposes including hunting, scientific study, cultural and ceremonial uses by Native Americans, wildlife viewing, and photography.
- Manage statewide cougar populations for a sustained yield.
Cougars are solitary, and are difficult to track and study; therefore it is difficult to accurately estimate statewide cougar populations. But based on six studies in Washington, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the adult cougar population size is about 1,900 to 2,100 animals.
Yes. Cougars are classified as game animals and an open season and a hunting license are required to hunt them. For more information regarding hunting regulations go to the WDFW’s website specifying cougar hunting regulations.
Yes. A property owner or the owner’s immediate family, employee, or tenant may kill a cougar on that property if it is damaging domestic animals (RCW 77.36.030). No permit is required.
The killing of a cougar in self-defense, or defense of another, should be reasonable and justified. A person taking such action must have reasonable belief that the cougar poses a threat of serious physical harm, that this harm is imminent, and the action is the only reasonable available means to prevent that harm.
The body of any cougar, whether taken under the direct authority of (RCW 77.36.030), or for the protection of a person, remains the property of the state and must be turned over to the Department of Fish and Wildlife immediately.
No. Cougar attacks on people are extremely rare. A person is one thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar. Cougars, like any wildlife, can be dangerous; therefore people who live, work, or recreate in cougar habitat should take precautions to reduce their risk of an encounter. In Washington, the one human mortality from a cougar occurred 90 years ago. During this time, there have been fifteen non-fatal attacks on humans. Seven of those occurred in the last 25 years most likely due to the fact that Washington experienced a 60 % increase in the human population followed by an exponential growth in outdoor recreation.
There are a number of steps you can take to reduce the possibility of a negative interaction with a cougar.
- Hike in small groups and make enough noise to avoid surprising a cougar.
- Keep your camp clean and store food and garbage in double plastic bags.
- Keep small children close to the group, preferably in plain sight just ahead of you.
- Do not approach dead animals, especially deer or elk; they could have been cougar prey left for a later meal.
If you see or encounter a cougar:
- Never approach the cougar or offer it food.
- Stop, pick up small children immediately, and don’t run. Running and rapid movements may trigger an attack. Remember, at close range, a cougar’s instinct is to chase.
- Face the cougar. Talk to it firmly while slowly backing away. Always leave the animal an escape route.
- Try to appear larger than the cougar. Get above it (e.g., step up onto a rock or stump). If wearing a jacket, hold it open to further increase your apparent size. If you are in a group, stand shoulder-to-shoulder to appear intimidating.
- Do not take your eyes off the cougar or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide.
- If the cougar does not flee, be more assertive. If it shows signs of aggression (crouches with ears back, teeth bared, hissing, tail twitching, and hind feet pumping in preparation to jump), shout, wave your arms and throw anything you have available (water bottle, book, backpack). The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not prey, but a potential danger.
- If the cougar attacks, fight back. Be aggressive and try to stay on your feet. Cougars have been driven away by people who have fought back using anything within reach, including sticks, rocks, shovels, backpacks, and clothing—even bare hands. If you are aggressive enough, a cougar will flee, realizing it has made a mistake. Pepper spray in the cougar’s face is also effective in the extreme unlikelihood of a close encounter with a cougar.
No. A cougar sighting does not necessarily mean that there are more cougars in an area. A cougar in, or near, a residential area is also not necessarily human habituated, or associating their food source to humans, and might be a juvenile passing through an area in search of an open territory.
If you live in cougar country there are a number of steps you can take to avoid attracting cougars to your property.
- Close or patch-up any potential cougar shelter (i.e., under porches).
- Do not feed deer or any other wildlife that cougar may prey upon.
- Try using outdoor lighting and/or motion activated lights to repel cougars. Sprinklers and commercial motion-activated inflatable scarecrows startle animals when activated.
- Always work with your neighbors for a consistent solution.
Not necessarily. The death of a single cougar creates a territorial vacancy that several other cougars will attempt to occupy and hold. Research data shows that younger cougars will move into an area to occupy the vacancies. This can result in more cougars on the landscape until the population re-establishes its social structure to limit the numbers.