Cougars are more widely distributed in Utah than many residents realize. These shy cats are found across the state. They roam from the high Uinta Mountains to the dry southern deserts.
David Stoner, assistant professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources who has studied cougars for the past two decades said, “[Cougars] are common in terms of their distribution, but are rare in terms of their numbers. They live in many places but there are never a lot of them, typically occurring at densities of 1 adult per 20 square miles.
Stoner continues, “They’re just a big cat. Most of us are familiar with a house cats, and know how they behave, their movements, and idiosyncrasies. The main difference is their size. Cougars can be as large as humans [males usually range between 110 to 180 lbs.] They have evolved to take prey larger than themselves. You see this in the size of their muzzle – the mouth, nose and jaw. All of that is much larger in a cougar relative to its own body than a house cat. This becomes even more dramatic in the really big cats like tigers and lions with very large muzzles.
Stoner partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to study cougars in two Utah areas, one of which was Monroe Mountain in Fishlake National Forest.
The researchers noticed an unusual movement pattern of juveniles on the mountain. When the young were ready to leave their mothers they could have migrated in any direction to find good habitat but they disproportionately chose to go either NE or SE. This perplexed the researchers.
At about the same time the cougar research was winding down, DWR was starting a mule deer monitoring program.
Stoner said, “We were very fortunate. What DWR found was the Monroe Mountain deer herd were mostly migrating NE and SE. I looked back at our data and found the cougars who were leaving Monroe were going in the same direction as the deer migrations, the young cougars were tracking the deer herds.
Due to their hunting methods and nutritional needs, cougars require large home ranges. Researchers gathered data from NV, UT and AZ to represent a wide range of environmental conditions from very dry systems close to Las Vegas to relatively wet systems along Wasatch front.
Stoner explains, “We found the size of the home ranges…varied with precipitation. The wettest areas the cougars had the smallest home ranges, because of the abundance of prey in these highly productive systems. Females tend to have ranges strictly based on the food they need. The male’s range is much larger because they are looking for breeding opportunities, so they overlap numerous females. These ranges can be quite large. One collared male had a home range of over 2,500 square miles, which was visible on maps at the scale of the entire western United States.”
When it comes to human interactions with cougars, Utah has been very fortunate. In the past 100 years, no humans have been killed by a cougar. In hopes of maintaining this record, DWR keeps safety tips on its website. The most important tip is to never run from a cougar, this will cause them to instinctively think you are prey and begin the chase. If you have a child with you pick them up. Stand firm and look intimidating, let it know you’ll fight back. Your goal is to scare them off.
With the wise actions of humans, Stoner and DWR hope this majestic cat will continue to flourish in Utah.