Trail Safety 101: Cougar Encounters
Also known as mountain lions or pumas, cougars are one of North America's largest wild cat species. These elusive hunters can be found across the state of Utah, including in the Wasatch Range and Uinta Mountains. Although they live much closer to urban areas than most of us would expect, they prefer to stay well away from people and aren't frequently sighted by trail users. That being said, meeting a cougar in Utah isn't uncommon and a number of hikers in the Park City area have spotted them recently. Seeing one of these beautiful wild cats can be a big treat, but it's crucial to always remember wild animals are unpredictable and approaching wildlife is not a good idea, no matter how much you want that selfie.
Avoiding Cougar Encounters
Understanding cougar behavior and habits can be key to avoiding a confrontation with one. Here are some tips for staying out of their way.
- Don't hike by yourself, particularly after dusk, and make noise. Cougars do most of their hunting from dusk until dawn, preying predominantly on deer. They tend to be shy and avoid groups.
- Keep children ahead of you and in sight. Since cougars catch their prey by ambushing from behind, this reduces the chance of an attack.
- Stay away from dead animals, especially deer or elk. After a kill, cougars frequently hide the carcass with leaves, dirt, or snow at the base of a tree to eat later. If they feel their food is threatened, they will defend it.
- Make sure your pets stay close. Just like children, a roaming pet can provoke a cougar or even irritate one that was previously inclined to avoid groups.
- If you're camping, keep your campsite clean and store food and garbage properly. Keeping your food in locked containers or hung between two trees won't just deter cougars, but other animals, including bears, as well.
If You Meet a Cougar
- Don't run and don't approach! While it might be your first instinct to get well away, turning your back on a cougar and running will trigger predatory instincts, meaning the cougar will likely choose to hunt you. You don't want to walk toward it either, as it might think you're threatening it.
- Maintain eye contact, stand up tall, and try to look intimidating. You might not feel intimidating, but staring a cougar down makes you seem threatening. In addition to standing up tall, you can also make yourself look bigger by raising your arms and waving them or opening your jacket.
- Speak loudly and firmly. Summon your most commanding voice and tell the cougar to get out of there while you slowly back away.
- Pick up children and keep them calm. The last thing you want is your child to panic and run from the cougar. Try to pick your child up, maintaining eye contact and avoiding bending over too far or turning your back on the cougar
- In the case of an attack, fight back! Cougars kill by going for the neck, so make sure you protect both your head and neck. If you are aggressive enough and the cougar concludes it can't win the fight quickly, it will most likely decide to leave.
If you do happen to meet and aggressive cougar, you should contact the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (or Park City police department if you spot them in town).
Stay safe out there and enjoy the rest of the trail season!