Mountain Lions of the Intermountain West

Science Center Objects

The presence of top predators is considered an indication of ecosystem health and can play a vital role in ecosystem functioning by promoting biodiversity, and can contribute to regulating prey species abundance, and herbivory.  In the intermountain west, the largest mammalian predator and obligate carnivore is the mountain lion, Puma concolor.  This elusive and wide-ranging predator occupies a variety of environments and uses various prey species throughout its range.  Though an adaptive species, mountain lions in the southwestern United States are subject to sport harvest, depredation, habitat loss, fragmentation, and habitat degradation.  Therefore, to better understand this species, SBSC has been researching the diet, survival, and habitat use of mountain lions and their prey. 

Collared mountain lion between large rocks on Anderson Mesa, Arizona.

Collared mountain lion between large rocks on Anderson Mesa, Arizona. (Credit: Sam Dieringer, USGS & USDA Wildlife Services. Public domain.)

Background & Importance

Though mountain lion attacks on humans are rare and vehicle collisions also tend to be infrequent, a spatial depiction of mountain lion activities, and timing of use, provides information useful for reducing potential unwanted human-wildlife interactions, increasing public awareness, and estimating the effects of vehicle traffic and roads on mountain lion habitat use, dispersal, and survival.        

Because mountain lions occur in naturally low population densities, even in optimal habitat (estimates are often approximately 2 per 100 square km  or 2 per 39 square miles), additional sources of mortality can alter population dynamics for large areas.  In the Flagstaff, Arizona uplands, mountain lions have displayed an aversion to crossing roads.  Factors that contribute to a mountain lion’s willingness to cross roads such as traffic volume, types of vehicles, timing of traffic, vehicle speeds, and the characteristics of the environments surrounding the roads, need further study. 

General Methods

Capture, GPS-collar tagging, and release of cougars has been conducted in northern Arizona and southern Utah and Nevada, USA, from 2003 to present by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service (Northern Arizona University IACUC Protocol # 02-082-R4), resulting in GPS-tracking and monitoring of 74 study animals thus far.