Mountain Lions in the State of Wyoming

While there’s no official population estimate for the state’s mountain lions, Wyoming Game and Fish Department regulations allow several months of winter hunting in the state, with methods that include the use of hounds. The state places no bag limits in several of its hunt units, and the rest of the units have high quotas.

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History

Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today’s Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.

What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the saber-toothed lion.

During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleontologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Wyoming, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.

Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840’s, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.

Bounty Period and Game Management

Like most states, Wyoming’s first lion management plan took the form of paying a bounty for every lion killed where the pelt was turned over to authorities. This program continued in Wyoming until roughly fifty years ago.

For ninety-one years, between 1882 and 1973, an unknown number of mountain lions were killed as a result of a bounty placed upon the animals by the Wyoming Territorial Government. In 1974 (the first year records are available, and the first year lions were classified as a game animal) eight mountain lions were reported killed. Since 1974, humans have killed at least 4,372 lions in Wyoming. During the state’s 2011 mountain lion hunting season (September 1st – March 31st) an estimated 286 lions were killed — quite a difference from the state’s first lion hunting season just 36 years earlier.

Despite strong data and recommendations from their own biologists to lower hunting quotas, the state has continued to increase hunter harvest. A recently proposed bill would have created new opportunities for hunters to kill large numbers of mountain lions in the name of increasing mule deer numbers.

Public pressure successfully convinced Game and Fish to defeat the bill and lower hunting limits in one game management unit. With watchfulness and added pressure perhaps we can keep similar bills from being passed and persuade the state to set lower limits in the rest of the state.

Status

Since 2007, Wyoming Game and Fish has been successfully reducing the state’s mountain lion population in an attempt to bolster mule deer numbers. The number of mountain lions killed by hunters increased from 180 in 2006 to 306 in 2013 and has leveled off or decreased slightly since 2013. During this same time period, the proportion of older trophy male mountain lions killed by hunters each year has decreased, while the proportion of females and younger males killed has increased.

This change in harvest proportions points towards one hard truth: a population in decline. Hunters prefer large, prime-aged male mountain lions. When there are fewer mature male mountain lions in the population, hunters shift to killing the demographic groups that remain, namely younger animals and females. The demographic shifts in hunter-caught individuals are likely reflective of changes in the population structure as a whole. Fewer mature resident males, heavier harvest pressure on other age groups, and higher female mortality all lead to declining mountain lion numbers. Further compounding the influence of overharvest, hunting females is particularly problematic to maintaining a viable population because they are the ones who raise the kittens.

Exactly how hunting influences the population trajectory is no mystery. Local research led by the Teton Cougar Project shed new light on the influence hunting has on the state’s mountain lion population. They found that the study area’s mountain lion population declined by nearly fifty percent over the last decade, and that reducing the hunting limit in the unit from five to three animals could halt that decline.

This research provided the fodder for local citizens to speak out and put pressure on wildlife managers. A record number of people commented on proposed changes to wildlife regulations and were rewarded for their efforts. Directly motivated by the research conducted by the Teton Cougar Project, the public successfully pressured the state into reducing the study area’s mountain lion quota by 75 percent. Unfortunately, that attention didn’t spread to other parts of the state. While the quota in study area’s hunting unit was greatly reduced, statewide hunting limits increased by 44 percent.

Once again, citizens need to join together to let the Game Commission know that they’ve made the first step in protecting the lion population, and now they need to see it through to the rest of the state. The Commission needs to ensure that mountain lions can persist in healthy numbers by reducing harvest quotas throughout Wyoming. Write a letter, send an email, or make a call to the Game Commission and tell them what you think!

Habitat

Wyoming Mountain Lion Habitat and Population

The state of Wyoming encompasses 93,136 square miles of land. Of this, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) estimates that approximately 44,379 square miles, or 48 percent of the state is probable mountain lion habitat. This habitat is distributed sparsely throughout most of Wyoming with concentrations in the northwest around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, in the Bighorn Mountains in the north central portion, the mountains outside of Cheyenne and Laramie in the southeast, and the Black Hills, located in the upper Northeast corner of the state.

The Black Hills area is of particular interest because it has been apparent for some time now that the region’s lion population is a primary source for the recolonization of the species throughout the entire Midwest and possibly the eastern seaboard. This mountainous region (approximately 5,000 square miles in size) straddles the state lines of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska with approximately 10 percent of the Black Hills located within Wyoming’s borders.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department tries to avoid public scrutiny of their mountain lion management decisions by refusing to publicly estimate how many lions live in the state. Instead WGFD bases its claim of a healthy, expanding lion population on public opinion.

Recent studies in other western states using the most up to date research methods place the average density level of a healthy lion population at 1.7 mountain lions per 100 square kilometers. Based on that figure, MLF estimates Wyoming could have as many as 2,000 adult lions. Unfortunately, the public will never know for sure until the WGFD presents official numbers of its own, backed by credible, peer reviewed, evidence.

Human-Caused Mountain Lion Mortalities in Wyoming

For ninety-one years, between 1882 and 1973, an unknown number of mountain lions were killed as a result of a bounty placed upon the animals by the Wyoming Territorial Government. In 1974 (the first year records are available, and the first year lions were classified as a game animal) eight (8) mountain lions were reported killed. Since 1974, humans have killed at least 4,372 lions in Wyoming. During the state’s 2011 mountain lion hunting season (September 1st – March 31st) an estimated 286 lions were killed — quite a difference from the results of the state’s first lion hunting season just 36 years earlier.

A few years back, MLF researchers looked at human-caused mountain lion mortalities in Wyoming between the years 1992 to 2001. During that 10-year study period, human-caused mountain lion mortalities steadily increased from 73 reported in 1992 to 220 in 2001. This represents a 201 percent increase with an annual average of 147 reported mountain lion deaths. Sport hunting accounted for 97 percent of all reported human-caused mountain lion mortalities, with the remaining mortalities the result of depredation kills. These figures do not include lions killed by poachers, road-killed, or poisoned, nor do they take into account orphaned kittens that die as a result of adult females being killed.

Concentrations of human-caused mountain lion mortalities were highest during the study period in the Bighorn Mountains, in the vicinity of Jackson Hole, and the mountains between Caspar and Cheyenne. Using the study’s mortality ranking system, the top five Hunt Areas (HAs) for mountain lion mortalities were numbers 15, 6, 23, 21, and 26. From 1997 to 2001, these HAs were responsible for 36 percent of all human-caused mountain lion mortalities in Wyoming while encompassing only 13 percent of the state’s identified mountain lion habitat.

Based on MLF’s mortality density model, Wyoming (During the study period) averaged 0.33 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. As of the year 2011, Wyoming’s lion mortality average has almost doubled to 0.64 mountain lions reported killed by humans for every 100 square miles of habitat. This is an alarming trend especially in light of the fact that nobody knows for sure exactly how many lions still reside within the state.

Wyoming’s Black Hills

As mentioned above, the Black Hills are of particular interest because of their unique situation of encompassing parts of three states, and because scientists have traced several transient mountain lions found as far away as Connecticut as originating from that region.

Unfortunately, actions currently underway by the governing state game agencies (Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska) have reduced this natural process to a mere trickle of individual animals. At this time there appears to be a concentrated effort by pro-lion hunting factions in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska to increase the number of lions killed within their jurisdictions of the Black Hills region, regardless of the effects on the species as a whole.

Wyoming’s ever-increasing annual lion hunting season now threatens even those few.

All Wyoming citizens who believe their state’s lion population is being exploited and threatened with extirpation can voice their opinion by attending one of the scheduled public hearings on the annual hunting quotas, sending in written comments to the regulators via their formal process, and also by contacting your local legislators (Senator and Representative).

Law

Species Status

The species is classified as a trophy game animal, along with black bears, grizzly bears, and — eventually — grey wolves (after the wolves have been removed from the list of experimental nonessential population and endangered or threatened species). Wyoming is one of a handful of states – along with Alabama, North Dakota, and West Virginia – that have not passed an endangered species law.

State Law

Generally, treatment of wildlife in the State of Wyoming is governed by the Wyoming Statutes. Since our summary below may not be completely up to date, you should be sure to review the most current law for Wyoming.

You can check the statutes directly on their state-managed website. These statutes are searchable using the keywords “mountain lion”.

The Legislature

The Wyoming state legislature is a part-time, bicameral legislature that meets in the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne. The legislature features a lower house called the House of Representatives and an upper house called the Senate. The Republican Party has been the majority party in both chambers since at least 1992. The legislature meets for no more than 40 days in odd-numbered years and roughly 20 days in even-numbered years. Sessions in odd-numbered years begin on the second Tuesday in January. Sessions in even-numbered years begin on the second Monday in February. The legislature can meet for no more than 60 days every two years except when special sessions are called.

The governor can call special sessions of the legislature with no limit to the length of the session. The legislature may also call special sessions, but these are limited to 20 days.

The legislature’s website contains maps of the districts and links to find your state representative and to find your state senator.

State Regulation

With regard to hunting, Wyoming publishes complete WGFD Hunting Regulations as they are updated. Regulations related to mountain lions held in captivity are detailed under a separate subheading below.

Wyoming Game and Fish Commission

State wildlife regulations are set by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is an 8-member body consisting of the governor and seven officials whom he or she has appointed and have been confirmed by the Wyoming Senate. Commissioners serve six-year terms. State law prohibits appointing more than four commissioners from the same political party. Among other responsibilities, the Commission may determine how many members of a species may be killed during hunting season, set the dates of hunting seasons, and acquire lands and waters for the state in order to enhance the quality of hunting and fishing within the state.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD)

The state’s regulations are enforced by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD). The executive branch department is charged with managing the state’s wildlife, overseen by and implementing the policies of the Game and Fish Commission. In addition to the Wyoming mountain lion hunting web page, the Department prepares a multi-year Mountain Lion Management Plan and publishes a periodic Mountain Lion Mortality Report.

Geographical Administration

Wyoming divides the state into different regional categories for various administrative purposes, including Wildlife Regions, Wildlife Biologist Districts, Warden Districts, and Wildlife Habitat Management Areas. These administrative regions differ from Wyoming mountain lion hunt areas.

Hunting Law

Hunting of mountain lions is allowed in the State of Wyoming. Mountain lions may be hunted with all legal firearms and archery equipment, which includes crossbows, longbows, recurve bows, compound bows, and arrows. Hound hunting is allowed.

Mountain lion hunting season in Wyoming generally runs from September 1 to March 31 with a handful of regions varying from this timeframe.

The regulations governing “recreational” hunting of mountain lions specify 33 regions.

The season “harvest quota” for mountain lion hunting is set by the Game and Fish Commission in July. The state’s mountain lion management plan — approved by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in 2007 — lays out the “sink/stable/source areas” strategy used to set mountain lion hunting quotas. Wyoming does not set sex-specific quotas but prohibits the killing of lions less than one year old and of females with kittens. There does not appear to be a schedule as to when to write a new management plan.

The state maintains a regularly updated summary of mortality by Mountain Lion Management Area during the hunting season.

Public Safety Law

Wyoming does not appear to have a law that addresses what may be done when a mountain lion endangers a human being.

Depredation Law

Depredation law in Wyoming is monitored by the State’s Game and Fish Department. The law specifies that any mountain lion seen damaging private property may be immediately killed by the property’s owner, an employee of the owner, or the lessee of the property. The nearest game warden must then be informed of the killing. The person who kills the lion must then care for the skin and procure a game tag for the skin. There is a government-funded compensation program for losses of domestic animals to mountain lions. When damage is discovered instead of being observed, the owner of the property must report the damage to the nearest game warden, damage control warden, supervisor, or commission member within 15 days. The owner then has 60 days to present a claim WGFD, which then has 90 days to decide whether it will accept or reject the claim. Wyoming Statute 23-1-901 specifies that no claim may be paid to a landowner who did not allow hunting on his or her property during hunting season. Owners of domestic animals are not required to take certain steps to protect their pets or livestock.

Trapping

Mountain lions may not be trapped for fur in Wyoming. The regulations governing trapping specify that mountain lions are “non-target wildlife.” If a mountain lion is trapped, it must be released unharmed. If the lion is injured to the point that it may die or has been killed by the trap, the trapper must immediately notify a Game and Fish Department law enforcement officer. The regulations do not say what is then done with the carcass.

Poaching

Poaching law in the State of Wyoming provides some protection of mountain lions in law, but only as a deterrent. It is rare for penalties to be sufficiently harsh to keep poachers from poaching again.

Wyoming Statue 23-3-102 states that any person who kills a mountain lion without a proper permit or outside of mountain lion hunting season is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000-10,000 fine and may be imprisoned up to one year. Any person who is convicted three times within a ten-year period is guilty of a felony punishable by a $5,000-10,000 fine and may be imprisoned up to two years.

Road Mortalities

The Wyoming Department of Transportation does not keep records of mountain lions killed on the State’s roads.

Captivity

Mountain lions may not be kept as pets according to Wyoming Game and Fish 23-1-103. Wyoming law considers all mountain lions to be property of the state and prohibits private ownership. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will, however, consider applications for possession from government agencies or higher education institutions.

Research

Mountain lion research is usually conducted in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In compliance with Commission Regulation Chapter 33, researchers must fill out a WGFD application that includes a list of the species to be taken, number of animals possessed, location of the study, purpose of the project, expected benefits to science/research/education/or Department management, complete description of wildlife holding facilities, method of euthanasia to be used (if any), and a detailed study plan.

The Department may require the applicant to provide additional certifications to prove he or she is qualified to perform the techniques necessary to carry out the research. Permit applications take at least twenty days to process and “shall only be issued if the Department determines there is a need for the information collected from the proposed scientific research, there is a valid educational purpose, the issuance of the permit is not detrimental to the wildlife resource or it has been determined a special purpose permit is required.”

Research projects involving the importation of live wildlife must also comply with Commission Regulation Chapter 10.

Permitted mountain lion research projects must submit an annual report to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on or before January 31 following the year the permit was valid.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department does not appear to provide a list of published mountain lion research on their website. One of the long-term mountain lion research projects in the state is the Teton Cougar Project in northwestern Wyoming.

Goal

According to the WGFD’s 2006 Mountain Lion Management Plan, “The goal of mountain lion management in Wyoming is to sustain mountain lion populations throughout core habitat at varying densities depending on management objectives to provide for recreational/hunting opportunity, maintain ungulate populations at established objectives or in line with current habitat conditions, and minimize mountain lion depredation to pets and livestock and reduce the potential for human injury.”

Action

There are currently no action alerts for Wyoming. Be sure to check back often for updates.

Story Map

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Library

Wyoming Cougar Files Sorted by Type

Research

  • Bartnick, T. D. & Van Deelen, T. R., 2013, Variation in cougar (Puma concolor) predation habits during wolf (Canis lupus) recovery in the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
  • Bartnick, Travis D.; Cuthill, Marilyn; Craighead, Derek & Quigley, Howard B., 2014, Apparent Adoption of Orphaned Cougars ( Puma concolor ) in Northwestern Wyoming
  • Biek, Roman; Ruth, Toni K.; Murphy, Kerry M.; Anderson, Charles R.; Johnson, Mark; DeSimone, Richard; Gray, Rachel; Hornocker, Maurice G.; Gillin, Colin M. & Poss, Mary, 2006, Factors associated with pathogen seroprevalence and infection in Rocky Mountain cougars.
  • Chomel, Bruno B.; Kikuchi, Yoko; Martenson, Janice S.; Roelke-Parker, Melodie E.; Chang, Chao Chin; Kasten, Rickie W.; Foley, Janet E.; Laudre, John; Murphy, Kerry; Swift, Pamela K.; Kramer, Vicki L. & O’Brien, Stephen J., 2004, Seroprevalence of Bartonella infection in American free-ranging and captive pumas (Felis concolor) and bobcats (Lynx rufus)
  • Clark, Douglas, 2007, Clark, Timothy W., Murray B. Rutherford, and Denise Casey (eds): Coexisting with Large Carnivores: Lessons from Greater Yellowstone
  • Cleveland, Terry, , Wyoming Game and Fish Mountain Lion Education And Identification Course
  • Edwards, Melodie, 2015, WY-O-Edwards-Are-Mountain-Lions-Solitary-Hunters
  • Elbroch, L. Mark; Lendrum, Patrick E.; Quigley, Howard & Caragiulo, Anthony, 2016, Spatial overlap in a solitary carnivore: Support for the land tenure, kinship or resource dispersion hypotheses?
  • Elbroch, L. Mark; Lendrum, Patrick E.; Robinson, Hugh & Quigley, Howard B., 2016, Population- and individual-level prey selection by a solitary predator as determined with two estimates of prey availability
  • Elbroch, L. Mark; Quigley, Howard B. & Caragiulo, Anthony, 2015, Spatial associations in a solitary predator: using genetic tools and GPS technology to assess cougar social organization in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem
  • Irwin, Kenneth A. . Logan & Larry L, ., 1985, Mountain Lion Habitats in the Big Horn Mountains
  • Juarez, Rebeca L.; Schwartz, Michael K.; Pilgrim, Kristine L.; Thompson, Daniel J.; Tucker, Stephanie A.; Smith, Joshua B. & Jenks, Jonathan A., 2016, Assessing temporal genetic variation in a cougar population: influence of harvest and neighboring populations
  • Keehner, Jon R.; Wielgus, Robert B.; Maletzke, Benjamin T. & Swanson, Mark E., 2015, Effects of male targeted harvest regime on sexual segregation in mountain lion
  • Kenneth A . Logan, Larry L. . Irwin & Skinner, Ronell, 1986, Characteristics of a Hunted Mountain Lion Population in Wyoming
  • LaRue, Michelle A. & Nielsen, Clayton K., 2008, Modelling potential dispersal corridors for cougars in midwestern North America using least-cost path methods
  • LaRue, Michelle A. & Nielsen, Clayton K., 2016, Population viability of recolonizing cougars in midwestern North America
  • Lendrum, P. E.; Elbroch, L. M.; Quigley, H.; Thompson, D. J.; Jimenez, M. & Craighead, D., 2014, Home range characteristics of a subordinate predator: Selection for refugia or hunt opportunity?
  • Mark Elbroch, L.; Lendrum, Patrick E.; Newby, Jesse; Quigley, Howard & Thompson, Daniel J., 2015, Recolonizing wolves influence the realized niche of resident cougars
  • Richard L . Berg, Lyman L. . McDonald & Dale, M. ., 1983, Distribution of Mountain Lions in Wyoming as Determined by Mail Questionnaire
  • Ruth, T. K.; Buotte, P. C. & Quigley, H. B., 2010, Comparing Ground Telemetry and Global Positioning System Methods to Determine Cougar Kill Rates
  • Ruth, Toni K. & Ruth, Toni K., 2016, The Yellowstone Cougar Project
  • Ruth, Toni K.; Haroldson, Mark A.; Murphy, Kerry M.; Buotte, Polly C.; Hornocker, Maurice G. & Quigley, Howard B., 2011, Cougar survival and source-sink structure on Greater Yellowstone’s Northern Range
  • Thompson, D. J. & Jenks, J. A., 2005, Long-distance dispersal by a subadult male cougar from the Black Hills, South Dakota
  • Van Tassell, L. W.; Phillips, Clynn & Yang, Bozheng, 1999, Depredation claim settlements in Wyoming

Agency Reports

Comments and Letters

Other

  • Black, Hal L., 2005, Book review: Of Mice And Mountain Lions: The Adventures Of A Wildlife Biologist
  • George, C., 2012, News: Mountain lion roams lander
  • Murie, Olaus J. ., 1958, Book review: North American Head Hunting
  • Reed, 2011, Mountain lion surprise in Fort Washakie ends with a bang