Lion blending in with rocky hillside.
Text: Counting Lions.
Photo of lion on snowy rock.

How Many Lions are in the United States?

The status of mountain lions (also called cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts) is very much in question. Every day, our remaining lions are threatened by human population growth, poaching, hunting, development, pollution, and habitat loss. The true health of populations in the United States, Mexico, Central and South America is virtually unknown. Listed below is Mountain Lion Foundation's response to the question of how many lions are left in the United States.

The solitary and wide-ranging nature of the mountain lion makes it difficult to directly estimate populations. Habitat fragmentation, degradation, lack of connectivity and cultural intolerance of mountain lions even on prime habitat makes it difficult to use habitat density to extrapolate and calculate populations on a large scale. This means we just don't have good estimates of mountain lion numbers in the United States. Nor do we know precisely what population levels are required in order to maintain genetically healthy subpopulations that are ecologically effective on the landscape.

Forest habitat in American west.
There are approximately 301,000 square miles of forest cover in the western U.S., yet many of these landscapes are fragmented, inaccessible, or intolerant of lions.

State game agencies have estimated mountain lion populations in the United States to be between 20,000 and 40,000 lions. The main reason game agencies calculate populations is to set quotas for additional kills, and oftentimes the simple fact that more lions are killed each year is used as an indicator that there therefore must be more lions. The agencies' biases are imbedded in these estimations.

Agency numbers show an increasing number of lions over prior decades, regardless of the facts: the number of mountain lions killed annually by humans has increased dramatically everywhere mountain lions are found; their prey populations are down; and habitat is being lost at an astounding pace.

We at the Mountain Lion Foundation prefer not to estimate without good data. However, we can see the need to comment on the estimates of others. We readily admit our estimates will reflect conservation biases: the concern that we need to estimate so conservatively that we will not be taken by surprise when we undertake direct primary research and find that numbers or genetic viability have already begun to suffer—as they have in southern California, Florida, Texas, and South Dakota, for example.

Based on the best available data at this time, Mountain Lion Foundation believes the mountain lion population in the United States is unlikely to exceed 30,000. And, many of those lions depend upon severely fragmented and degraded habitat, are in severe danger of over-hunting and road kill, are imperiled by intolerance of their presence on the landscape, and are so few and unconnected they are on the edge of genetic viability.

Failing the American Lion

09/23/13 Article by Mountain Lion Foundation Staff

Mountain lions in the United States face many threats—not the least of which are wildlife management policies that don't seem overly concerned about the species' survival. Year after year the hunting quotas for mountain lions go up and agencies are less certain about the number of lions living in their states, while quite sure that the populations are healthy and growing. Itss this vast uncertainty that agonizes conservationists. In the governments' game of sleight of hand, the lion is always the loser.


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