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Why Are Mountain Lion Attacks Increasing?

Why do mountain lions attack people? Why are lion populations expanding? And why have we had more encounters in recent years? Those are a few of the key questions answered by Steven Torres in his new book, Lion Sense (FalconGuides 2005). Torres is a mountain lion expert for the California Department of Fish and Game. The basis of his book is 100 years of information on mountain lion encounters in western North America, which he and his assistants have assembled. This enormous project provides new perspective on the history of mountain lion management and the challenge of managing the big cat in a rapidly changing West.

From my perspective, people involved in outdoor activities should be as concerned, if not more concerned, about mountain lions as bears, so it’s about tune we have some good solid information about mountain lion attacks to go with the fifty or sixty books that cover bear awareness.

Every year western states and provinces have hundreds of mountain lion encounters, such as meeting a mountain lion on a trail or seeing one in your neighborhood, but Torres does not consider these “attacks.”? His research shows that true attacks are quite rare—only 80 attacks total, 18 fatal, in the past 100 years. That’s less than one attack every year and one fatality every five years. Not a serious problem if you compare it to almost any other way you can get injured or die in the outdoors.

However, the trend line is somewhat alarming. More than 50 percent of these attacks have occurred since 1985. Since 1995, one to five mountain lion attacks on humans have been reported yearly.

One of the first points Torres makes is that bears and mountain lions are “fundamentally very different”? with respect to their behavior. “Bears can easily be seen, raid your camp food, are attracted to trash, damage vehicles looking for food, and potentially attack people. Conversely, mountain lions are not easily seen, are not attracted to food or trash, and their main conflict with us is through attacks on people, livestock, and pets.”?

Unlike bears, lions are not known to attack while protecting young or defending kills. Most attacks occur on what Torres calls the “urban fringe”? where residential development takes over traditional lion habitat. “We are seeing the boundaries that once divided the wild from the city now blurring.”?

Humans will continue to occupy more and more lion habitat, Torres says, so unfortunately, conflicts will continue, but through quality educational efforts, such as the wildly successful Be Bear Aware or Leave No Trace programs, conflicts can be much reduced.

Many people think mountain lions are rare or even endangered, but the America’s biggest cat is actually common throughout western North America. Mountain lion numbers have been increasing over the past 30 years because of protection from hunting and an ever-increasing prey base (mostly deer). People don’t realize this because lions are, as Torres puts it, “masterfully secretive and ordinarily very wary of people.”?

Torres doesn’t know for sure why mountain lions attack people, but he is sure that “everyone has a theory.”? One of these theories is what he calls the “exposure hypothesis”? where attacks are a very low probability that’s simply a function of the number of humans and mountain lion interactions. “In other words, as the number of encounters between humans and mountain lions increase, so increases the number of attacks.”? Supporting this theory is the fact that attacks occur more frequently in areas of higher human activity.

With urban deer herds booming, mountain lions come into the urban fringe or even into the heart of western cities every night. They are just predators being predators by going where the prey is.

In his book, Torres devotes much space to advice on how to avoid an encounter. In particular, he wants you to prepare for an outdoor trip by learning about mountain lions, which is sure to help you escape an encounter without injury. For example, if you see a lot of deer, you’re more likely to have a mountain lion nearby. Here are a few more tidbits on avoiding an encounter:

1. Travel with a friend or group.

2. Keep small children supervised and close to you.

3. Don’t let pets run unleashed.

4. Try to minimize your recreation during dawn and dusk when mountain lions are most active.

5. Respect warning signs or notices of mountain lion activity.

6. Teach others in your group how to behave. One person or child who starts running could precipitate an attack.

If all of this preventive work fails, and you have an encounter, Torres gives advice on what to do.

1. Don’t panic.

2. Recognize threatening mountain lion behavior.

3. Do not approach a mountain lion; give the animal the opportunity to move on. Slowly back away, but maintain eye contact if close.

4. Do not run from a mountain lion. Running may stimulate a predatory response.

5. Be vocal and talk or yell loudly and regularly.

6. Appear larger than you are. Raise your arms above your head and make steady waving motions. Raise your jacket or another object above your head. Do not bend over, as this will make you appear smaller and more “prey-like.”?

7. If you are with small children, pick them up.

8. Be prepared to defend yourself and fight back, if attacked. Try to remain standing. Do not feign death. Everything is a potential weapon. People have fended off mountain lions with blows from rocks, tree limbs, and even cameras.

9. Risk your life to defend your friends or children, but not your pet.

10. Report the encounter to the appropriate agency.

Torres also includes special advice for trail runners, mountain bikers, trail riders, pet owners, and people moving into lion country.

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  1. Perhaps there has been an increase in these attacks, but it’s likely that people are simply reporting them more often now – especially given that they used to be thought to be extinct in various regions.

  2. I also recommend “Cougar Attacks” by Kathy Etting. It’s mostly a compilation of newspaper accounts of actual attacks and takes it state by state for how it happened and what the results were. Not long ago, in Colorado, a 6 year girl in a Colorado apartment complex where a friend of mine lives, using the techniques described in the above article, got a mountain lion to let her be. The main thing, when out in big cat territory, is to be aware.