What John Belushi Didn’t Teach Us About Mountain Lions

by Dr. Jordan Schaul, First published in Huffington Post January 5, 2016. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

What may be comical, perhaps endearing and speaks to the elusive nature of the cougar (AKA mountain lion) is one of my earliest visuals of North America’s largest cat. Outside of a visit to a zoo, I recall first seeing a mountain lion in the critically acclaimed movie Continental Divide starring John Belushi. I was only eight when the Spielberg-produced comedy was released, but it served as an early and remarkable introduction for me in regard to the largest non-pantherine cat in the world and one of North America’s most iconic large predators.

Although I don’t remember the plot particularly well, I vividly remember the specific scene where human meets cougar. Unfortunately, the cinematic treatment of the run-in with the big cat not only left a lasting and erroneous impression on me, and likely my contemporaries, but it probably created many misperceptions of the big cat for a wide audience. With that said, I remember that it was a very entertaining feature film.

In the superbly directed or at least well-edited scene, a cougar wanders unceremoniously and unannounced into a cabin to the dismay of Belushi’s character and proceeds to shred him after the two exchange a few pleasantries. As a na├»ve and intensely urbanized cub scout with an already skewed perception of large predators and their habitat preferences, I was convinced from watching the film that cougars were common, bold and cavalier around people and commonly seen. I also gathered from the movie that these wild cats were strongly associated with rugged terrain. They do like rugged landscapes because they can seek refuge in such habitat, but before they were intensely hunted they were commonly found in a diversity of wild places, which supported ungulate prey species. Today, cougars have a restricted range in North America, having been extirpated from the Midwestern and Eastern states. But they have the most extensive north-south distribution of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere and may be recolonizing former range states in the US.

Cougars occur in range of habitats, provided there is ample vegetative cover or rocky outcrops that provide refuge. Within temperate zones of North America and tropical and subtropical rainforests of Central and South America, the cougar inhabits a diversity of landscapes. They are not simply residents of the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.

These big cats are most closely related to the cheetah and the jaguarundi, a small wild cat species with a historic range in the Southwestern United States. Although male cougars can attain weights of 140 lbs they are considered by biologists to be small cats in a big cat body. They don’t roar, but they can purr and they are quite agile and capable of jumping to considerable heights.

Although cougars can live in proximity to humans, they are exceedingly fearful of people and often retreat before a person can catch a glimpse of their presence. They typically avoid open habitats and human modified environments. A common myth is that cougars jump out of trees or off cliff ledges to attack prey. They do ambush unsuspecting animals from behind cover, but they only jump to lower elevations to build up momentum when in pursuit of prey.

Cougar-related human fatalities are far fewer than dog-related human fatalities, but perception is everything and people still perceive cougars to be dangerous to humans, pets and livestock. In North America they prey predominantly on large ungulates. Cervids (i.e. moose, elk and deer) are a mainstay and bison really represent the only exception in terms of potential prey that they won’t consider. As generalists, mountain lions forage on a very wide range of species including many large and small mammals and birds. In fact, six smaller cat species, including Canada lynx and bobcat have been reported as prey items across the mountain lion’s entire geographic range.

Although a regulated game animal in Washington State, trophy hunting has placed significant pressure on cougars and the population trend is likely in decline, at least in the Eastern part of the state. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates, there may be as many as 2500 cougars in Washington State, although it is not possible to know real population numbers for sure.

According to Lorna Smith, the Executive Director of Western Wildlife Outreach, “Conflict with people, pets and livestock primarily occurs where hunting pressure has been intense, and large dominant males have been killed, causing disruption in localized cougar populations. Young males vie for that dominant position, and chaos can ensue for a while. In the words of Dr. Rob Weilgus whose research team has conducted many years of research on Washington’s cougar populations and their behavior, ‘When one old guy dies, three young guys come to the funeral’. All of a sudden young cougars are vying for dominance in the vacated territory, competing for resources for food and mating. The losers may venture onto ranches or farms in search of any kind of prey. So, we now know that the role of older dominant toms is very important in reducing conflicts with humans and their domestic animals.”

WWO has produced a video on staying safe in Cougar Country, which can be viewed here on our Vimeo channel.