POWELL — If you go for a hike in the mountains or a stroll in the forest, there is an excellent chance a mountain lion may keep you company for part of the trip.
That’s one of the lessons Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Dan Thompson, who is in charge of protecting and studying Wyoming’s large carnivores, offered during a recent presentation at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody.
“There’s probably been a mountain lion watching you that you didn’t even know was there,” Thompson said.
That doesn’t mean people should panic about a sudden cougar attack, he said. They are extremely effective killers, but they rarely prey on humans; he said there have been less than two dozen fatal attacks nationwide in recent memory.
However, Thompson offered advice to people on what to do if they encounter a mountain lion, as well as how to reduce the odds of that happening. It’s something he routinely does during such presentations, he said.
Thompson said in the best case scenario, you will see a mountain lion from a distance. If that is the case, “enjoy the moment,” he said.
However, if you come across one in a closer setting, there are several things you should do to reduce the risk of an attack. For one, make yourself appear as big as possible. Raise your arms — stretch yourself out. Persuade the cougar to simply walk away.
Never run. That will only excite the animal and bring its predatory instincts to the fore. Slowly back away, keeping the lion in front of you, since mountain lions prefer to attack by biting on the base of its victim’s skull.
If the big cat, for whatever reason, comes toward you, read the signals. Has it flattened its ears? It is hissing and snarling? If it prepares to pounce, you must defend yourself, Thompson said.
Strike it. Use a weapon, or pick up a tree branch to use to knock it back.
“Do not play dead,” he said.
That technique has been known to work with bears, but Thompson said a mountain lion will just continue to attack its prey until it is dead and it can feed on it.
Thompson emphasized that such a scenario is very rare. You can ensure it is even rarer by not taking walks in mountain lion-friendly territory alone, and not in the morning or at dusk, when the nocturnal creature is more likely to be active.
Install outdoor lighting at your home to keep cougars at bay, and to alert you if one is in the area. Be careful with the shrubbery by your home, since a cougar will use any available cover.
Remember, you’re an animal, too, and rely on your instincts, Thompson said.
“I’m a believer in trusting your intuition,” he said.
Not many places in the lower 48 have black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves. Wyoming is blessed that such large animals share the state with man, Thompson said.
He has worked in the outdoors for 20 years, and he was a South Dakota Game and Fish Department staffer before coming to Wyoming. Thompson has studied and pursued mountain lions for years, and he said he finds the big cats fascinating.
He has chased down cougars with specially trained dogs that tree the big cats. Once they are darted, they are measured for size, and their gender and age are checked. Hair, blood and genetic samples are taken.
The wildlife biologists will attach a radio collar and/or an ear tag. Sometimes the cougars are tattooed as well in an effort to improve tracking them.
Males will wander in search of hunting territory much more than females, who tend to reside close to their mother and other female relatives. But both male and female lions have astounded researchers when they have been found hundreds of miles from where they were once examined by biologists.
One cougar was killed when it was hit by a train in Oklahoma. It was determined it had traveled at least 663 miles, Thompson said.
Thompson said the health and safety of the animals is a priority. Once a drugged cat fell into a river, and he and a colleague had to jump in and pull the sluggish, but still very much awake, mountain lion to shore.
He said he has survived the work without any serious injuries, but he has learned to wear sturdy work gloves when dealing with the kittens, whose teeth are razor sharp.
It’s important to study and track mountain lions and other wild animals in order to properly protect them and ensure the population remains viable, Thompson said. He said they can live to be about
12 to 13 years old, and the females will give birth every 2 1/2 to three years.
They produce three or fewer kittens, and baby cougars have a 60 to 70 percent survival rate. For the mountain lion population to remain stable, they must have rugged terrain in which to live, ample cover in which to hunt and a strong prey base on which to feed.
Cougars are promiscuous animals. They are also competitive, and males will wage long, bloody fights that last for hours. In general, he said they are difficult to categorize, and are both curious and “cryptic.”
They are amazingly resilient animals, Thompson said, and can live in places that appear unreachable by any creature. Mountain lions, also called cougars, catamounts, panthers and pumas, can adapt to an amazing variety of habitats.
They die in a variety of manners, either of age or illness, killed by hunters, struck by vehicles or in accidents. Some drown, and others are killed when they encounter electric power lines.
“It’s not all pretty out there,” Thompson said. “It’s a rough life for those animals.”
The number of mountain lions in Wyoming has not been determined, and Thompson resisted all efforts during and after his presentation to provide a number. It’s safe to say there are hundreds of them in the state, he said, but the big cat’s population varies from area to area within Wyoming.
They prefer to feed on elk and deer but also will prey on badgers, mink, jackrabbits and beaver, as well as house cats and other animals. Mountain lions especially love the taste of porcupines, which he said are considered “candy bars” for cougars. In rare instances, they turn cannibalistic and will feed on their own kind.
“They need meat to survive,” Thompson said. “These things can happen.”
Mountain lions feed in one of two ways: They will either lay in wait and attack a creature that comes along, or they will stalk their prey.
He said if you come across cougar tracks, it’s a good idea to depart. If you stumble across a fresh kill or a cached carcass that has been fed on, the mountain lion is almost assuredly nearby, so you should leave immediately.
Thompson said people often mistake house cats, big yellow dogs, deer or other animals for mountain lions.
He advises people to look for a long tail, which is a sure sign of a cougar. An adult male will weigh from 125 to 180 pounds, while a female will measure between 75 and 120 pounds.
“They have these big, meaty paws,” Thompson said.
While many TV and movie depictions portray mountain lions screeching, he said in reality they are very quiet, except for during the breeding season. When you do hear a big cat, though, it will stick with you, Thompson said.
“It’s a fairly god-awful sound,” he said.
But the odds are you will never hear or see one, he said.