Conservation of the puma a.k.a. mountain lion – full discussion 2022

Introduction: This page has been refreshed, added-to and republished on February 1, 2022. It needed to be because assessments on conservation of wild species needs to be constantly updated. That said, and regrettably, it seems that the experts are not doing this. The experts charged with reporting on conservation and threats against the puma (Puma concolor) admit on the IUCN Red List website that the date of assessment was April 17, 2014. This is almost 8 years ago.

Florida panther cub who is healthy despite his mother having the disease
Florida Panther afflicted by new neurological disorder: feline leukomyelopathy. Florida panther cub who is healthy despite his mother having the disease. Image National Geographic.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The assessment provided tells us this wild cat species is considered to be of Least Concern in terms of its survivability. This means that conservationists are not particularly concerned about the protection and conservation of this iconic wild cat species at this time. That, in turn, must mean that humankind is doing something right in terms of protecting this cat.

RELATED: How many pumas are left in the world 2020?

Notwithstanding this information, the experts also report that the current population trend is downwards. Year-on-year there are less mature individuals on the planet. If this continues, we would have to expect the Red List assessment to be downgraded to Near Threatened (more vulnerable to possible extinction in the wild in the future). You will see the various classifications by the IUCN Red List below:

IUCN Red List categorisation
IUCN Red List categorisation. Chart in public domain.

So, what are the threats to the survivability of this wild cat? The threats at 2014 are:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation;
  • Poaching of the puma’s prey animals;
  • Persecution by farmers retaliating against pumas which have killed livestock and as a preventative measure to prevent possible livestock killing by pumas;
  • Hunting of pumas is still legal in several western US states. It is banned in California;
  • The major threat to the Florida Panther, a subpopulation of the puma, is roadkill. This is described as the principal cause of mortality. There are others – see the section below please;
  • Increase in residential and commercial development which erodes the habitat of the puma;
  • Agro industry farming, agriculture, wood and pulp plantations, livestock farming and ranching, hunting and trapping of terrestrial animals, logging and wood harvesting, wildfires (think the massive California wildfires of 2021), dams and water management use, problematic native species, diseases are all threats to the puma either directly in terms of mortality or indirectly in terms of ecosystem degradation.

RELATED: Residents of Los Angeles and its environs treasure their mountain lions

California – a good example of conservation efforts

California must be a leading state in the conservation of the mountain lion. For example, they banned hunting of this cat species years ago. On April 16, 2020, the California government released a statement to say that the mountain lion had been listed in the state’s Endangered Species Act. The decision was based on the need to do more to protect the animal. They decided that formal protection under that Act was needed.

Despite the ban on sport-hunting, some mountain lion populations have low survival rates because of human-caused mortalities i.e. different ways of killing the mountain lion by people. These include car accidents, poisonings and killed by farmers in retaliation for livestock predation.

The decided that the habitat was too fragmented. They needed to do something about connecting up these fragmented areas. They feared that the mountain lion would go extinct within 50 years unless something was done.

RELATED: Green bridge for pumas traversing California’s Freeway 101 will be world’s biggest.

They are going to build crossings over existing freeways which helps to allow the mountain lion to move around and reduce vehicle collisions. State officials were or are reevaluating use of deadly rat poisons mountain lion habitats. And the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is developing methods to help people and mountain lions coexist.

Florida

Florida seems to be struggling with mountain lion conservation. In that state, they call their puma a ‘Florida Panther’. They seem to think that it is a distinct subspecies but because of a very narrow genetic pool due to the tiny size of the population (100?) they had to import pumas from the USA’s west. Accordingly, the Florida Panther can no longer be classified as special or different to other mountain lions in the USA. There was a case of many mountain lions in that state suffering from ataxia due to neurological problems. I don’t know how that panned out but it looks terrible. They have a particular problem with road traffic accident killing Puma. And it appears that the commercial development in that state is prioritised over Puma conservation.

RELATED: Conspiracy to Eradicate the Florida Panther.

Conservation of the mountain lion in any US state is automatically going to conflict with economic growth and population growth. A balance needs to be found but, in truth, commercial pressure always outweighs conservation. The long-term prognosis is not good in states like Florida. On July 18, 2015, I wrote about the Eastern Cougar being removed from the Endangered Species list.

Note: Although I have focused on North America, the puma is present in South America. It has the widest distribution of all the wild cat species.

The section below was written in 2009

The information is valid but things have changed over 13 years, which is why I have updated the page in the section above. My sources for this section were: news stories, the book: Wild Cats of the World and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (Red List)

Conservation of the Puma Cat – Overview

In broad terms it seems that the threats are:

  • sport hunting
  • poaching of the puma’s prey
  • habitat loss and fragmentation
  • retaliatory killing for loss of livestock
  • road traffic (mainly for the Florida panther)
  • inbreeding (Florida)

Conservation of the Puma Cat – Threats

As expected, these all relate to the activities of people. In most of the countries other than the United States hunting is either regulated or prohibited. But in these countries loss of habitat and farmers killing pumas in retaliation for the killing of livestock is a real threat. I have to presume that as the puma and human is gradually pushed together due to human population growth these encounters will increase. What is being done to protect livestock from the puma?

Everglades National Park Florida

Everglades National Park Florida – photo by slack12 (new window)

In the USA, surprisingly for me, sport hunting of the puma is allowed or the killing of pumas is restricted to what is called “nuisance cats” or cats that have killed livestock (hunting is “regulated”). What is equally disturbing for many people (but not enough evidently) is that sport hunting is conducted with the help of trained hounds leaving little chance for the cat. Mel and Fiona Sunquist in Wild Cats of the World call sport hunting “harvesting”. I find that term quite sickening. The cat is chased by the dogs up a tree where it is shot. Seems quite ridiculous to me. Unsurprisingly this form of “hunting” is very successful (87% success rate) and it happens quickly, taking an average of 1.7 hours to “tree a puma”. Hunters, it would seem, have created a new verb “to tree” [a puma]. It would seem that “harvesting” has not depleted puma numbers hence it goes on. Although the Sunquists say that “puma numbers appear to be stable…” It seems we are not sure but don’t care enough to check before hunting the cat. Mercifully, in California hunting is banned. Also, in general, over the entire range of the puma cat, its population is decreasing (Red List), and so it is not stable as a whole.

IUCN Least ConcernIn my opinion (and this is a personal one), keeping a pet cougar (my argument is here: Pet Cougar –new window) and the Red List itself are hidden silent threats to the survival of the puma cat in the wild. I think the Red List underestimates the threats and classifies too generously. The puma cat is classified as LC (Least Concern). Humans are also classified as least concern! This encourages hunting. I would like the Red List people to explain this as their justification on their website does not. They say the population is decreasing and that it has been extirpated over large areas. These statements do not seem compatible with a classification of LC.

The underlying threat is that peoples’ activities are incompatible with those of the puma cat. Take farming. The problem and negative attitudes towards to the puma began early on in North America. As soon as people introduced sheep and cattle into the landscape the puma quite naturally saw these animals as easy prey and like all animals it will find the easiest route to survival. In 1931, under pressure from ranchers, legislation was enacted, the Animal Damage Control Act (act), that resulted in the slaughter of 7,255 pumas between 1937 and 1970 (and incidentally almost half a million bobcats!). And between 1907 and 1978, over 66 thousand pumas were killed – shocking for people like me. This was one way traffic and no conservation.

This act still operates and 41 pumas were killed in 1990 under its legislation. It costs more to run the program than is saved by so called animal “pests”. The concept of having to kill pumas (acting naturally) for treating livestock as prey is financially unviable and misdirected it could be argued. Losses to the puma are small compared to losses from other causes such as disease. In Nevada sheep losses to the puma were .29% of the total, for example. People have complained that tax payers money has been ill spent in trying to eradicate the puma (note that the argument is not that it is unfair to kill the puma for doing what comes naturally). Surely, we can devise better schemes to allow us to live more in harmony with the puma? Sometimes the reason why pumas attack sheep is because people have hunted its prey to near extinction. We are the cause. Other times it might be due to mismanagement of livestock; not taking proper preventative measures. More can be done it seems to prevent loss to both livestock and puma. Perhaps we just like the excuse to go out and shoot one! We are too eager to shoot it. There is no doubt about that in my mind. This is borne out by the powerful gun lobby in America. This hunting, shooting thing is very peculiar to north America.

A mountain lion attack on a person also gives rise to a reason to hunt the animal down and shoot it. Yet these are very rare indeed and proactive steps can be taken which virtually eliminate it. These attacks in any case (14 in 117 years in California – see Mountain Lion Attacks in California) are caused by human activity encroaching on puma habitat. Also, pumas become accustomed to us and therefore approach people, which terrifies people who are unaware of how to deal with the situation. It is very dysfunctional.

Other treats are road traffic accidents (a major threat if not the most important threat for the Florida panther) and poisoning, also for the Florida panther. Human population growth translates to more cars and more roads and more puma accidents. And more people mean more industry which means more pollution (and the USA has the largest carbon foot print by far of any country), which results in water pollution through rainfall. This in turn pollutes fish life and ultimately the puma! Mercury poisoning has been reported in the Florida panther. This can kill on its own or diminish success rates of reproduction.

Then there is the low population of the Florida panther; less than 100. Is this a sustainable population? Will inbreeding gradually destroy the cat through poor sperm production and genetic defects. Apparently, a population of 500 is required to remove this threat.

Then there is the ever-present habitat loss and fragmentation due once again to human population growth and increase activity.

big cypress preserve florida

Cypress Preserve Florida – photo by Revo_1599 (new window)

Conservation of the Puma cat

Let’s start with the worst case, the Florida panther. The more you read about the conservation of the puma cat in Florida the more unsettling it looks and the more one becomes depressed about the long-term prospects for survival of this cat surrounded as it is by ever growing human activity. I even proposed that the extermination of the Florida panther is the desire of many people in Florida. Of course, many take the opposite view but it is business that would like the panther out of the way and business runs the place.

As to traffic schemes, these have been implemented to prevent traffic accidents that kill the cat (fences and tunnels etc. have been installed). I don’t know how successful these have been – probably some, but limited success. Road kills are still high and not it seems decreasing. There have been attempts to reintroduce pumas into the Florida parks. The first attempt failed miserably as of the seven introduced 3 were shot in six months and 4 recaptured within 10 months. It might be worth mentioning that a number of books on wild cats state that the Florida panther is a subspecies of the puma. The Red List lists it as a “subpopulation”. The subspecies assessment comes from various physical differences such as a kinked tail but these have also been attributed to inbreeding.

If the Florida panther is a critically endangered subspecies, then the introduction of Texas pumas (see below) would not be a conservation process as it would dilute the genetics of the subspecies. This would seem to be a recognition that it is not a subspecies.

The second (1993) attempt involved 10 pumas. This is what happened next:

Time into introduction into FloridaWhat happened
6 months1 killed by car. 1 shot. 1 removed.
14 months2 more shot. 1 removed.
2 years2 more removed (1 roamed too far and the other killed calves)
25 months1 killed by car

A third reintroduction was executed in 1995 when 8 female pumas were involved with the intention of reducing the threat from inbreeding mentioned above. Of the 8 introduced 5 mated with Florida panthers producing offspring and there are F1 and F2 offspring and backcross offspring (src: Genetics of Populations). Backcrossing is a crossing of a hybrid with one of its parents.

In South America livestock is also taken by the puma but not enough is known about jaguars taking livestock and how this compares to pumas doing likewise. Puma cats are being conserved in Brazil in the Iguaçu National Park.

Conservation of the Puma Cat – Other

Listed in CITES Appendix II – eastern and Central American subspecies (F. c. coryi, costaricensis and cougar) Appendix I.

  • Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled.”
  • “Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants.” (CITES)

Hunting is prohibited in:

  • in most of Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Bolivia
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • French Guiana
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Suriname
  • Venezuela
  • Uruguay

Hunting is regulated in:

  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • Peru
  • United States

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