Are Mountain Lions Endangered? Conservation Status and Threats

Florida mountain lions are the only population on the Endangered Species List

A female puma in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
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The mountain lion has been listed as “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2008, after spending the previous six years as “Near Threatened.” The IUCN recognizes six subspecies of mountain lion throughout its massive range, spanning from Canada through the United States, Central and South America, down to southern Chile.

Although the IUCN acknowledges that the global mountain lion population is likely decreasing, its numbers don’t justify threatened status, since it has the largest geographic range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. A subpopulation in Florida is considered endangered, as its isolated population numbers between 100 and 180 individuals.

This extensive range, paired with the mountain lion’s solitary nature, makes it difficult to estimate exact numbers, though it’s believed that there were at least 5,000 in Canada and 10,000 in the U.S. in 1990.

Wildlife Trade Protections

These impressive animals have also been listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty Appendix II since 1977. Appendix II indicates a species not necessarily threatened with extinction but with a need for trade control to avoid significant threats to survival. In 2019, however, populations from Costa Rica and Panama gained Appendix I designation, meaning trade is only permitted in exceptional circumstances.

Florida Panthers

An endangered Florida panther in the Florida Everglades
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Mountain lions go by many names, including puma, cougar, and panther. So many, in fact, that they’ve been listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the mammal with the most names. The elusive Florida panther is included in the species, representing the only known population of breeding mountain lions in the eastern United States. Another subspecies of mountain lion, the eastern cougar, was officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2001.

Historically, the Florida panther ranged from Louisiana to South Florida, including a majority of the southeastern United States. The subspecies was declared endangered by the federal government in 1967, after unregulated killing over two centuries reduced numbers to a single population. In 1973, the Florida panther gained protection under the Endangered Species Act. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Annual Report on the Research and Management of Florida Panthers from 2020, there are between 120 and 230 individuals left living on less than 5% of their historic range.

Threats

Between the 1800s and 1900s, persistent hunting of mountain lions brought the global population down substantially. Especially in the United States, mountain lions were feared by humans and believed to pose too much of a risk to livestock. Although recent conservation efforts in North America have brought mountain lion numbers up, populations remain much lower than they were historically. Aside from unsustainable hunting and conflicts with livestock, mountain lions are also threatened by habitat destruction, prey depletion, and accidental vehicle killings.

Hunting

Across their entire global range, mountain lions are killed through retaliatory and fear-based hunting by farmers protecting livestock and humans who cross paths with them in the wild. Hunting of mountain lions is legal in most of the western U.S. states, though killing a Florida panther is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $100,000. California banned the hunting of mountain lions in 1990, except in circumstances when a property owner can prove a lion has killed livestock or pets and to preserve public safety.

Efforts to enforce sustainable hunting practices in areas with high mountain lion density are often met with controversy, but conservationists continue to research policies for managing it. For example, a study in Idaho and Utah using 11 years worth of data found that closing 63% of mountain lion habitat to hunting would ensure long-term viability of the species, all while permitting traditional hunting in other areas. 

A Puma in Patagonia, southern Argentina
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In other parts of the world, mountain lions are more likely to be killed through chance encounters, such as when a lion confronts a hunter in the wild. In the Tapajós–Arapiuns Extractive Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon, 77% of reported mountain lion killings were due to chance encounters and 23% were hunted as retaliation for killing cattle.

Scientists in central Argentina studied mountain lion tracks, habitats, and daily activity patterns using cameras. They found that pumas in human dominated areas actually avoided areas with high concentrations of livestock and preferred nighttime hunting hours, when they were less likely to interact with humans. The research shows that humans and pumas can coexist if the animals have adequate habitat and prey available to them. The study also suggested that puma-livestock conflict could be greatly reduced if farmers adopted certain habits themselves — such as gathering livestock into corrals at night.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Mountain lions require a tremendous amount of habitat to meet their reproductive, energetic, and feeding needs. The National Wildlife Federation estimates that mountain lions require 13 times as much area as a black bear and 40 times as much as a bobcat in order to thrive. In human populated areas, rampant urban development and freeway construction threaten to push mountain lions out. Even in wilder areas, entire forested regions can be fragmented or destroyed due to increased demands for food, products, land minerals, and energy driven by the growing global population.

Studies connect mountain lion habitat selection to prey availability, meaning they specifically seek out habitats with prey that are more vulnerable to stalking and hunting; this includes the dense jungles of Central and South America, but also mountains, deserts, woodlands, and wetlands. For this reason, the conservation of mountain lion populations depends greatly on the preservation of suitable wilderness.

In Arizona, mountain lion habitats are more likely to neighbor urban areas because of the state's high human density. Researchers who study mountain lions in central and southern Arizona claim that season, size of the mountain lion, and ungulate (hoofed prey animals) density don’t affect the size of mountain lion home ranges. The lions do, however, avoid human dominated landscapes and prefer dense woodland habitat with the most trees. Home range sizes ranged from 5,286 to 83,859 hectares in males and 2,860 to 21,772 hectares in females.

Decreasing Prey Availability

While a mountain lion is extremely capable of taking down larger prey, they are more likely to hunt small to medium sized animals when they’re available. Deer make up 60-80% of a mountain lion’s diet in North America, but in places like Florida where deer numbers are lower, they hunt feral pigs, raccoons, and armadillos, with deer only accounting for a third of their diets. In South and Central America, where poaching is more prevalent, mountain lions can be threatened by the overhunting of their wild prey base.

Western Colorado provides habitat for a massive amount of wildlife, such as elk, moose, deer, and pronghorn. Researchers here used data from mountain lions from 2012 to 2013 to test whether prey selection is driven by chance occurrence or from targeting specific prey species. In particular, one lion spent significant time within a known beaver habitat and reduced its travel speeds while near waterways, suggesting that these predatory animals target specific smaller prey.

Road Mortality

A mountain lion crossing sign on the side of the road
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Road kills are another leading cause of mountain lion mortality, especially in the United States. Heavily traveled roads and the construction of new roadways become barriers to the movement and dispersal of mountain lions, as well, which can deter hunting and mating. 

Despite the animal’s protection from hunting within the state, annual mountain lion survival rates in southern California were still at 55.8% in 2015, considerably low for a protected species. Over 13 years, the two most common sources of mortality were vehicle collisions (28%) and deaths resulting from permitted hunts after a mountain lion killed domestic animals (17%). In addition to causing direct fatalities, road construction and development can create barriers to mountain lion movement; this can result in a lack of genetic diversity, which can be detrimental to small populations.

What We Can Do

The global mountain lion population continues to be affected by factors like urban development, conflict induced hunting, and road construction. While conservationists and scientists work to develop research and wildlife management plans to help protect the majestic mountain lion, there are plenty of community-focused organizations that readers can support on the local level. 

Mountain lions are most active at night, so it's important for drivers to stay mindful and alert while traveling through mountain lion territory. The National Wildlife Federation is working to help build the world’s largest freeway wildlife crossing to help keep Los Angeles mountain lions safe from extinction.

When it comes to endangered Florida panthers, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission urges people to report sightings and interactions to help biologists address conservation and habitat needs. Likewise, residents can support panther research and rehabilitation, as well as learn more about living with panthers through the Florida Panther Program. On a more global scale, Panthera’s Puma Program conducts essential research on mountain lion behavior and ecology to learn how to sustainably manage animals and designate critical habitat.