Known by 40 different names in English alone, the American cougar is on the decline even though it has a vast natural habitat. With a range stretching from the Yukon to the Andes, these magnificent cats are believed to have traveled to the Americas about 8 million years ago, crossing over to the Southern continent nearly 5 million years later. It is estimated that the current population is about 50,000 strong.
The biggest challenge to cougar survival is habitat loss and fragmentation. Generally solitary creatures, a males territory is estimated to span anywhere from 25 to 1000 square kilometers, depending upon the study. Female territories are generally smaller, and while males may share their territory with females, they wont do so with other males.
As large as they are, cougars are not the apex predators in their range; black and brown bears beat them out more often than not and they compete directly with grey wolves when territory overlaps. In the south they compete with panthers which routinely take larger prey. When conflict arises over kills with these other predators, the cougar tends to lose more of its catches than the other species.
Misperceptions Can Cause Harm Too
Cougars rarely attack humans or livestock, but the perception is quite different in certain areas of their range. Unfortunately, even though attacks are so rare, the media does such an enthusiastic job reporting such incidents, they increase fear of these secretive and majestic creatures. Listed with a status of least concern with the World Conservation Union, cougars dont merit protection or assistance at this time.
Only California and Florida prohibit the hunting of cougars to date. Florida is home to a subspecies of the American cougar, the Florida panther, which actually was one of the original endangered species back in the 1970s. It is estimated that only 50-100 animals remain in the state.
However, it is the extensive range and adaptability of these animals that make them of such interest to conservationists. It is hoped that by understanding how cougars manage to live in such close proximity to humans, usually successfully, other conservation programs around the world can benefit as well.