After dabbling in cam trappery for near 3 years now, I can report that "Did you get any cougars?" seems to be the top question every California cam trapper hears, whenever it's revealed they've recently pulled a set.
"Any Puma concolor?..."
"Black bears, bobcats and coyotes, huh? Very cool. What about mountain lions???"
Is it our primal fear of nocturnal stealth predators that drives this fascination?
"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."
Or, is it because they're so dang beautiful, interesting, mysterious, and hard to see?
"Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight..."
Perhaps all of the above.
So - why are they so tough to trap?
1. Cougars are not common.
TV sitcoms aside, the California Department of Fish & Game estimates the state-wide populations of our medium-large California mammals to be roughly:
Mountain lions - Puma concolor: 5,000
Bobcats - Lynx rufus: 70,000
Black bears - Ursus americanus: 30,000
Coyotes - Canis latrans: 500,000
Deer - Odocoileus hemionus: 500,000
People - Homo sapiens: 30,000,000
So there's 100 times as many deer and coyotes as mountain lions in the state. 14 times as many bobcats, 6 times as many bears...
Or, within a typical trail camera survey area - there's just 1 - maybe a few - of them.
2. Cougars have big home ranges that take time to circuit.
Range size is extremely dependent on food availability & density, but a typical mountain lion territory can hit 100 square miles, often shaped by ridge lines and riparian cuts (i.e., not square). For example, a 10-20 mile long corridor with multiple 2-3 mile side circuits is not uncommon.
With such large ranges, it can take a while to come back to a spot once they leave.
Which generally happens when the deer figure out one's around, and start hiding out.
"Any of you young bucks seen Steve?"
"No - has anyone seen doe Mabel, or her fawn?"
"I haven't seen any of them in days. Hmmm... Something smells funny around here. Let's hoof it."
Tracking the Furman Cougar, an excellent research team blog that shares experiences and GPS tracking maps from their collared kitties in New Mexico, has data that suggests their cougars:
- are constantly on the move around their territories. They also often don't use trails, don't follow predictable and regular patterns, and zigzag and crisscross.
In one data set, a network of cams didn't get a single shot of one collared cougar for 2 weeks - even though they were strategically placed around the area where the GPS collar showed the cat to be roaming. The same cams photo'd a 2nd known lion in the area 8 times in those 2 weeks.
- can easily move 3-6 miles in a night - and as much as 10 - but typically move about a mile (when they decide to move).
- spend about 3-5 days around a deer kill, staying within 300-1,000 feet of it. But they may also bounce back and forth between nearby kills (if they've gotten so lucky).
- typically traverse their range about 6-10 times per year. I.e., every month or two.
So, given the above, we can guesstimate that -
(sans the serendipity of the perfect path, nearness to a den, found kill...)
IF you happen to find (or live in) a mountain lion's range
AND you also find paths it transits, or areas it explores and hunts,
the cougar will typically be around your cam traps a little over a handful of times per year, and likely on/off for only a few days to a week each visit. If it's not just passing through.
In camera trapping terms, this means you either need to leave a cam on a good set/path for about 2-3 months to probably get lion shots, or hope for luck as you move cams around to try different sets within a given survey area.
Again - these numbers are very rough, so shouldn't be used as science. But they do give you a sense of the order of magnitude of the difficulty. Unless you find a major funnel point, the cats aren't coming by every night, or likely even each week. They're one of those seldom things.
Btw - getting a shot or two doesn't mean the cats will be full-frame, or face-on, or in-focus, or...
Much of my mammal lore I'm learning from the wise Codger, of course. He's trapped mucho cougar tail over the years. But, there's still places that don't make it easy on him. For example - on Chimineas - the team has only cam trapped 2 lions in near 2 years. With about a dozen cameras in the field at all times.
So, don't feel bad if it takes you a while to get some puma pics.
One thing is for certain - when you do - beauty or blurry - they'll be good days.
Because they always end with a tale...
"Did you get any cougars?"
"YES! Just one foggy butt shot, but you can totally tell what it is - and a good size one at that. Got it on manzanita hill, at the big snag pile..."
Here's the 3 mediocre - but thoroughly unmistakable - puma tales I've gotten so far in my 3 years - all in the Sierra Nevada, on the family property near Mariposa, CA:
May 2010 - on manz hill with a new homebrew cam and condensation on the lens. The tail is always the tell - just nothing else in the California animal kingdom like it.
Jan 2010 - at the fence, where the creek comes through - just to say "we're here."
2008 - very first cougar photo. At the intersection of two trails near the seasonal creek, a few hundred yards from the house.
You''ll definitely know when I'm lucky enough to get some more.
- Number of people attacked by mountain lions in California each year: 1/2. 1 per 2 years.
- Number of mountain lions killed by people in California each year: ~100
- Camera Trap Codger - Mountain Lion, Cougar & Puma posts
- Tracking The Furman Cougar - 4/2010 - 2/2009 - 1/2009 - 12/2008 - 12/2008
- Mountain Lion Foundation - Cougars at Home
- California Department of Fish & Game - Mountain Lion FAQs
- California Department of Fish & Game - Black Bear FAQs
- Kevin Hansen - Bobcat: Master of Survival
- Wikipedia - Cougar
- Mountain Lion Foundation - Biology and Behavior
- The Tokens - The Lion Sleeps Tonight