An elusive creature around Lake Tahoe that I’ve never been fortunate enough to see is the mountain lion, also commonly known as cougar, puma or panther. This magnificent beast once roamed all of North America but is now found only in the 12 westernmost states, and British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
Bounty hunting of the mountain lion began in the 1600s, as the early settlers feared them. As a result, by the 1900s, populations had been severely curtailed, which led to an overabundance of deer and other herbivores, in turn leading to a decline in the long-term health of entire ecosystems.
Fortunately we learn from our mistakes and in the 1960s, efforts began to preserve environmental health; yet even now, mountain lion populations have not been restored to all areas.
Mountain lions feed primarily on deer but will also eat coyotes and raccoons. One meal may consist of 20 to 30 pounds of meat. Once it has eaten its fill, the cougar will cache or bury the rest to save for later, returning to feed again for a week or so.
These animals are secretive, hunting mainly at night by quietly stalking prey under cover of brush or other terrain until an opportunity arises to pounce.
Mountain lions can breed at any time during the year but the kittens are born usually in June or July. The female chooses a den when it’s time to give birth, which may be an area among dense vegetation, under a rock ledge or in a shallow cave.
One to six cubs are born after about three month’s gestation, weighing only one pound. Kitten survival rates are just over one per litter.
Last April a cougar was hanging around South Lake Tahoe, spotted in the meadow between the Lake Tahoe Community College and a South Tahoe Public Utility District building. It was reported to be calm and not aggressive. It was probably a young male, trying to find a territory. Life can be dangerous for young males, as established males will kill it or drive it out of the area, leaving the youngster to search for its own turf.
One such young lion headed into downtown Reno early one morning in August of 2012. He was spotted trying to enter Harrah’s Hotel Casino through a revolving door. Fortunately, he was unable to conquer the door and hid instead under an outdoor stage where wildlife officials tranquilized him.
He was to be fitted with a tracking collar and released into an “appropriate area,” as part of a University of Nevada Reno Mountain Lion study.
It is extremely unlikely that you will encounter an aggressive mountain lion, but if you do, follow these tips from the National Park Service:
- Maintain eye contact, and never turn away.
- Stand up straight, with your arms above your head, in order to appear larger.
- Back away very slowly in case the lion is guarding a kill or her den.
- If the lion approaches, throw rocks or sticks and yell.
- If the lion does attack, fight back. Unlike surviving a bear attack, if you play dead with a mountain lion, you will be.
- Above all, DO NOT RUN! No cat can resist the instinct to give chase.
One person who has not only witnessed a “cougar attack” but actually was able to capture magnificent photos of a cougar in action is local photographer and Lake Tahoe photographic tour guide, Keith Price.
Keith has a passion for and an affinity with animals and nature that is readily apparent in his work. He has shot bear, including black bear, polar bear and grizzlies; cougars, wolves and coyotes; eagles, foxes and elk. Keith hunts with his camera, capturing images of animals for all of us to enjoy.
Keith and his wife, Robin, operate Tahoe Photographic Tours. Visit the website, tahoephotographictours.com to book a tour. Keith and Robin can show you a side of Lake Tahoe you may not have seen before. You can also find Keith Price in the Lake Tahoe Scenic Calendar 2014, which I just cut to half price at acutabovecalendars.com. This calendar features incredible photos of Lake Tahoe, of course, but also information about Lake Tahoe’s hiking trails, its wildlife, nightlife and more.