Using more relaxed criteria such as cat videos on the internet and sports mascots as popularity measures reminds us that American fondness for cats continues unabated. The story of the world of wild cats, a diverse family (Felidae), begins by noting they inhabit a variety of grassland and forest habitats throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. According to the 2015 International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) taxonomy, formally speaking, the world’s thirty seven species fit into fourteen genera:
To the average North American ear, some of the formal Latin names and common names, especially the big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards, sound more familiar than others. No doubt, the media attention provided for big cat conservation efforts explains the familiarity.
Tigers (panthera tigris), the biggest of the big cats, also rank among the most endangered big cats. The IUCN estimates that approximately 5,000 – 7,000 tigers now live in the wild, down from approximately 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. Five or six different tiger subspecies populations are now being monitored.
Regardless of familiarity, most of the North American audience recognizes the physical traits all wild cats share such as keen eyesight, round heads, whiskers, and retractable claws.
Like the domestic house cat, with the exception of lions, most, if not all of the other wild cats lead solitary lifestyles. Unlike the domestic house cat, wild cat populations continue to be stressed by habitat encroachment, and in some instances hunting.
North American Wild Cats
Wild cat enthusiasts have a variety of outdoor travel and recreation opportunities associated with their hobby. Six wild cat species, covering four different genera, call North America home Their range extends through much of the west, making it prime wild cat spotting territory.
- Jaguar (Panthera onca): North America’s only native big cat, sometime inhabits areas of the Southwestern United States. Its full range extends south to Argentina, suggesting it is adaptable to a variety of habitats. Limited range nationally decreases the probability of any regular tourist citings of them in the wild.
- Canada Lynx and Bobcat (Lynx): Along with long legs and short tails, tufts of hair on the top of the ears represents the most unique characteristic of the genus. Many recreation areas throughout the west claim to support bobcat populations. A few northern recreation areas claim to support lynx populations. Local citings are recorded for interested visitors.
- Margays and Ocelots (Leopardus): Seven species of New World Cats (Leopardus), prowl the fields and forests of South, Central and North America, with two species the ocelot and margay, currently living along North America’s southern border. A trip to a local National Wildlife Refuge might be the only way to potentially see either a wild margay or ocelot.
- Mountain Lion (Puma concolor)
Mountain Lions Roaring Back in the United States
Another iconic sports animal, the mountain lion, counts fans accross the country. Depending on the team, the North American mountain lion (Puma concolor), goes by different names, including cougars and pumas and Florida Panther.
Designated as North America’s largest breeding wild cat makes it not the king of the jungle, but king of the country. Males can grow up to eight feet in length and can weigh over one hundred pounds. Their coat is typically a uniform color of brown, tan or burnt orange.
Mountain once roamed the entire continental United States. Their East Coast and Midwest populations were decimated in the nineteenth century to make room for western human expansion.
West Coast populations finally stabilized during the 1960s, due primarily to the creation of wilderness areas in the Western United States.
In January 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a Mark Twain approach to the eastern mountain lion, by assuming they might have been prematurely declared extinct. They announced a status review which promised to bring clarity to the status of the big cat in the east. Upon completion of the review, on March 2, 2011 the USFWS declared the eastern mountain lion extinct, saying,
Although the eastern cougar has been on the endangered species list since 1973, its existence has long been questioned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) conducted a formal review of the available information and, in a report issued today, concludes the eastern cougar is extinct and recommends the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list.”
Lion fans need not fear a USFWS review that confirms the absence of a breeding population of eastern mountain lions.
Consider the research of the Cougar Network. They state
Western cougar populations have been increasing since the 1960s, largely due to increased legal protection for the cats and to the growth and expansion of prey populations.
The network also continues to document current mountain lion expansion into the Midwest. With a little determination, mountain lions will eventually find their way back east. Go Lions.