There are 6 species of wild cats in North America, and 2 of those are what we consider “big cats”. The smaller wild cats are the Bobcat, Lynx, Ocelot, and Jaguarundis. The big cats of North America are Cougars (often referred to as Mountain Lions), and Jaguars. In this article we’ll be focusing on the former of those big cats in the United States, the Mountain Lion. We’re going to look at Mountain Lion population by state, though many states don’t have a population as Cougars are mainly found in Western U.S. states.
Mountain Lions have been more prevalent to the west in the last 100 years, but many of the pockets of breeding populations east of the Mississippi River have been wiped out over the decades due to habitat loss and hunting. Having said that, through conservation efforts these big cats are making a comeback in many areas with their ranges and populations growing.
So let’s dive right into the article and have a look at all of the U.S. states that Mountain Lions call home, as well as those that they don’t.
Note: We will use Cougar and Mountain Lion interchangeably throughout this article.
U.S. states with Mountain lion populations
Below we will talk about the mountain lion populations in each U.S. state. We will look at the currently accepted population numbers, and any other notable information and history about cougars in that state.
The majority of U.S. states do not have any population of breeding cougars. Note that many of these states have had sightings over the years, and continue to have them, but that doesn’t necessarily constitute a population in the state.
Mountain lions have been extirpated (considered extinct) from the eastern U.S. states for almost 100 years, however roaming cougars from western states often travel east searching for territory.
Mountain Lion population by state
The following population estimates were taken from state government websites, and other authoritative sources. This list is for breeding mountain lion populations, but some sightings are noted. They are accurate to the best of our knowledge.
|State||Mountain Lion Population|
|Alaska||0, some confirmed sightings|
|Arizona||2,000 - 2,700|
|Connecticut||0, one confirmed sighting|
|Florida||120 - 230|
|Illinois||0, some confirmed sightings|
|Iowa||0, thought to be a few free-ranging cougars|
|Kansas||0, a few transient cougars|
|Michigan||0, some growing confirmed sightings|
|Minnesota||0, some growing transient prevalence|
|Missouri||0, confirmed presence, no large population|
|Montana||4,000 - 4,500|
|New Mexico||3,500 - 4,300|
|New York||0, some confirmed sightings|
|Oklahoma||0, confirmed presence, no large population|
|Tennessee||0, a few transient cougars|
|Texas||unknown. 170-454 confirmed|
|Wisconsin||0, a few transient cougars|
Mountain Lions have a status of extirpated in Alabama, there have been no confirmed sightings in the state in over 50 years. There are occasional reports of people who think they saw one, maybe they even took a blurry picture, but those are most likely bobcats. Read more about the status of Mountain Lions in Alabama here.
There is currently no breeding population of Mountain Lions in Alaska. Most sightings have been in southern Alaska, with a few rare sightings in the interior. Often, people who thought they spotted a mountain lion saw another member of the wild cat family, the lynx. Populations of mule deer are increasing in some parts of Alaska, and this could attract mountain lions to the area. Learn more about Mountain Lions in Alaska here.
Mountain lions can be found throughout Arizona, and data suggests the populations are not only stable, but growing. The current estimate is 2,000 – 2,700 throughout Arizona. The most common areas to see mountain lions in Arizona are in places of rocky and mountainous terrain. Hunting is legal, but closely regulated by the state. Find out more about Mountain Lions in Arizona here.
While mountain lions were considered rare in Arkansas after 1920, it seems they are making a comeback. With a few confirmed sightings every year, it is thought there may be about 20-30 in the state currently. Arkansas has a huge feral hog population, and this abundant prey item might be one of the reasons mountain lions populations are slowly increasing.
With more than half of the state having prime habitat (foothills and mountains), California has a large population of Mountain Lions. They are currently a protected species in the state and cannot be hunted as game. The last studies performed in the late 1990’s suggested a population of 4,000 – 6,000 of the big cats in California. More information about Mountain Lions in California can be found here.
Mountain lions have been an important part of the Colorado ecosystem for a long time. The states beautiful wilderness and mountainous terrain are prime mountain lion habitats. There are an estimated 3,000 – 7,000 Mountain lions in Colorado. To learn more about “lion country” in Colorado check here.
Despite many people claiming they have seen a mountain lion and calling sightings in to the state authorities, only one has been confirmed. Connecticut’s official position is that mountain lions have been extinct in the state since the late 1800s. The one confirmed case, sometimes referred to as the “Connecticut Mountain Lion” happened in June 2011 when an SUV struck and killed a cougar in Milford. A trail of DNA evidence collected over the years shows this particular mountain lion had traveled through New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. So while this amazing traveler ended up in Connecticut, it did not originate there.
While there are some sightings reported each year, there have been no confirmed mountain lions found in Delaware. The population is considered zero with perhaps the occasional transient visitor.
A subspecies of mountain lion can be found in Florida, the Florida panther. They are considered to be the only breeding species of cougar in the eastern part of the U.S. Florida panthers were listed as endangered in 1967. A long term plan was enacted in 2008 to try and protect and grow the population. At present they are only found around the Caloosahatchee River / southwest of lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. In 2017 the population was estimated between 120-230 panthers. Florida Fish & Wildlife has a nice page about the Florida Panthers here.
According to the state wildlife division, there have only been 3 credible mountain lion sightings in the last 25 years. People report sightings in Georgia every year, however the state is not considered to have a population and it is believed most of these sightings are a case of “mistaken identity”. Find more information about Georgia’s stance on mountain lion sightings here.
Being the isolated chain of islands that it is, Hawaii is not home to any mountain lions, or any larger mammals for that matter. There were a handful of sightings in 2002 that drummed up attention, but no big cat was ever found. Some locals call this the “phantom cat” and liken it to the Loch Ness monster. If there were a big cat on the loose, it would have to have escaped captivity.
Mountain lions are found regularly throughout Idaho, and have been observed in every county. Estimates place the mountain lion population in Idaho to be around 2,ooo. It is legal to hunt mountain lion in Idaho, however there are strict guidelines about quantity and gender that can be taken.
It is not believed that there is currently any breeding population of mountain lions in the state of Illinois. However there are confirmed sightings, so it is likely the big cats do occasionally move through the state. Four mountain lion carcasses have been found between 2002-2019 and DNA testing shows they are likely cougars from South Dakota. It is possible numbers in Illinois could slowly increase if cougars in areas such as South Dakota and the Rocky Mountain states begin to disperse eastward. Find out more about mountain lions sightings in Illinois here.
Indiana does not have a mountain lion population, although there are occasional sightings. The last sighting reports considered to be confirmed where in 2009-2010. To see Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources pages on mountain lions, check here.
Like many other states we have mentioned, Iowa does not have a breeding population of mountain lions, but still sightings are made every year. A handful of these have been confirmed over the years, but according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 95% of reported sightings are mistaken identity. The IDNR does admit that because of the confirmed cases, it is possible there are a few “free ranging mountain lions” present in the state. Read Iowa’s mountain lion pamphlet here.
Kansas is another central U.S. state where there is no established breeding population, but a few mountain lions have been seen over the years. According to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism it is likely the sightings are transient young males from more established populations (such as neighboring Colorado). Young males may travel long distances looking for new territory. It is thought these mountain lions only pass through Kansas. For more on Kansas mountain lion sightings, check this page.
Kentucky is not home to mountain lions. The nearest wild populations are also many hundreds of miles away in Nebraska and Florida. While reports of sightings have gone up, the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife believes this is due to people actually seeing bobcats, which are increasing in population throughout Kentucky. For more information see the Kentucky DFW page on mountain lions here.
There is no breeding population of mountain lions in Louisiana. They are considered to be rare in the state, with only a few confirmed sightings. For example, a cougar confirmed on a trail cam in 2016 was the first confirmed mountain lion in the state in over five years. Over the years there have been some local bigfoot-like folklore about Louisiana black panthers, however the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department says no black leopards or jaguars are native to the United States.
While mountain lions could once be regularly found in Maine, there has been no population since the early 1900s. There are occasional sightings but any confirmation is rare.
Bobcats are the only official populous and breeding “big cats” found in the state of Maryland. Like most eastern states, Maryland was once home to the eastern mountain lion but none remain today. There are occasional sightings, and there may possibly be the rare traveler that passes through. The Susquehannock Wildlife Society wrote an article about a potential cougar photograph submitted to them and discussed their process of investigation, in the end they deemed it was not a mountain lion.
Like all New England states, Massachusetts no longer has a population of mountain lions. Only two potential incidents have been confirmed, and both involved finding evidence of mountain lions, not the mountain lions themselves. The most recent being a photo of tracks in snow taken in 2011, and the state believes these may have been made by the “Connecticut Mountain Lion” confirmed in the area during that same time period. Read more about Massachusetts findings on mountain lions here.
Michigan no longer has an established mountain lion population, however confirmed sightings are starting to become more frequent. According to an article published by a local news outlet in August 2020, there had been six confirmed sightings from the Upper Peninsula in that year alone, bringing the total of confirmed cougar sightings since 2008 up to 55. This is still a very small number, but does suggest that mountain lions are travelings slightly more frequently to Michigan from established mountain lion territory in areas like South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. To see the the Michigan Department of Natural Resources page on cougars, visit here.
Minnesota does not have an established breeding population of mountain lions. However, it boarders North and South Dakota, both of which do have established mountain lion populations. Therefore roaming cats moving west are expected to sometimes cross into Minnesota. The state department of natural resources says that there is evidence that the prevalence of mountain lions in the state is increasing, however they believe it is still mostly just animals wandering in and out, not staying to breed. For more on cougars in Minnesota, see the MDNR page here.
After extirpation over 100 years ago, mountain lions have not returned to Mississippi. There is currently no breeding population and I couldn’t find many reports of sightings either.
Missouri does not currently have a breeding population of mountain lions, however the Missouri Department of Conservation acknowledges that mountain lions do have a presence in the state. They even have a “Mountain Lion Response Team” to investigate sightings and gather evidence to try and track the population. Almost all of the mountain lions found in Missouri so far, at least those where a sex determination could be made, have been males. Males are known to sometimes wander far in search of their own territory. Between 1994 and early 2020, there have been 82 confirmed reports. For more on Missouri’s mountain lion reports check here.
After an unfortunate past of over hunting, Montana’s mountain lion population has made a comeback. While the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks department hesitates to give solid numbers because they feel methods for tracking the population need to be improved, their estimate in 2019 was about 4,000 – 4,500 mountain lions. Starting in 1879 and lasting many decades, bounties were paid for killing mountain lions in Montana, severely impacting the population. In 1971 they were classified as “game animals”, and hunting could therefore be controlled by the state. This plus increasing numbers of deer and elk allowed the lion population to slowly recover. View Montana’s “Living with Mountain Lions” page here.
Mountain lions were eliminated from Nebraska by the late 1800’s, and it wasn’t until the 1990’s when they began to return. There are currently three areas of Nebraska where the mountain lions are living and breeding, Pine Ridge, Niobrara River Valley and Wildcat Hills. As of 2019 the population in Pine Ridge was estimated at 34. The Niobrara River Valley and Wildcat Hills populations are relatively new and no estimates on population have yet been made. The Nebraska Games & Parks Commission is committed to tracking and controlling the population to keep it an an optimal level. To read more about their efforts and mountain lions in Nebraska visit their page here.
It is thought that mountain lions were once relatively rare in Nevada, but as the populations of deer grew in the 1930’s and 40’s, so did the cougars. Estimates seem to fluctuate but the most recent I could find approximates about 2,000 mountain lions. According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife “In Nevada lions are found in areas of pinion pine, juniper, mountain mahogany, ponderosa pine and mountain brush. Lions generally are most abundant in areas where deer are plentiful.” Nevada has a brochure about living with mountain lions here.
The mountain lion population in New Hampshire is considered to be zero. According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game page, there continues to be no evidence of any mountain lions in the state.
Officially, the bobcat is the only large cat that calls New Jersey its home, no mountain lions. However like most eastern states, there are occasional sightings called in, however none that I could find that have been confirmed.
An Associated Press article from 2019 lists the mountain lion population at about 4,353. A report on the states page lists the estimated minimum population for 2020-2024 to be about 3,512. The state has begun to use more high tech methods for tracking the secretive lions, including motion-capture cameras, mathematical models and GPS collaring. They also engage in harvesting specific numbers of cougars each year to control the population. Read more at the New Mexico Game & Fish cougar page here.
There is no population of mountain lions in New York state. But there have been sightings. According to the states’ environmental conservation page, none of these were native and breeding in NY. One was confirmed to have traveled from a South Dakota population, and a few others were cougars that escaped from a licensed NY facility. You can read more about how to report a mountain lion sighting in New York here.
There are no known mountain lions in North Carolina. Sightings are sometimes reported to the state, and in 2019 multiple people took to Facebook claiming to have seen one, but no confirmations have been made.
While much of North Dakota is open prairie habitat that will not support many mountain lions, they do reside in the more mountainous western parts of the state. As of 2020 the state does not estimate population numbers, but rather looks at overall trends, and feels the population has been fairly stable. Recent confirmed sightings of mountain lions in North Dakota are about 20-40 per year. This article written in 2020 has a good wrap up of the current mountain lion status in North Dakota.
While there are many unconfirmed sightings of mountain lions in Ohio, there is not believed to be any living in the state. In fact an article I read noted that a confirmed mountain lion sighting hadn’t happened in 100 years. The cat that is growing in population within Ohio is the bobcat, and many official believe most of the sightings called in are actually people mistakenly seeing bobcats.
Mountain lions are considered to be a “transient species” in the state of Oklahoma. Meaning they have been documented in small numbers in the state, but there is no evidence that they breed or have established a territory in any one area. Visit Oklahomas mountain lion research page here.
Oregon has quite a healthy population of mountain lions, estimated to be over 6,000. They can be found through the state, with the highest populations in the Blue Mountains and Cascade Mountains. Despite these large numbers, they stay in the wilderness and encounters with humans have been rare. Visit Oregons mountain lion page here.
Pennsylvania currently does not have a population of mountain lions. Occasional sightings are made, but nothing confirmed. There is a possibility a transient lion passes through the state from time to time, but this would be considered rare.
There is no known population of mountain lions in Rhode Island. Like most New England states there are always sightings, but currently no confirmations.
According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the state does not have a “free-ranging wild cougar population”. They do acknowledge some have escaped captivity in the last 30 or so years, and that there is a possibility of the occasional transient young male passing through. Some believe the Florida panther has traveled up to South Carolina but there is currently no evidence of that.
Most of the mountain lions in South Dakota can be found in the Black Hills region, where there are an estimated 300-500 lions. There are also mountain lions in other parts of the state but the populations are smaller and exact numbers unclear.
Only a few confirmed sightings of mountain lions have occurred in Tennessee in recent years. They are considered a transient species in the state, with no breeding population. You can find out more about the confirmed sightings on the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency page here.
Texas definitely has mountain lions, however just how many is unknown. The habitat of the state could support more than 6,000, but it is believed the current population is much lower than that. The map below only lists confirmed sightings, ranging from 170 – 454. The largest breeding population can be found in west Texas in the Trans Pecos region, and smaller pockets occur in the South Texas Plains, Balcones Escarpment and the canyonlands of the panhandle.
Texas Parks and Wildlife put together a nice PDF about the state’s mountain lions here.
Utah is home to approximately 2,500 mountain lions. Hunting is allowed, with the state controlling the number of allowed harvests every year. You can read the states 2015-2025 cougar management plan here.
Mountain lions are considered to be extirpated from the state of Vermont. They once populated the state, colloquially called the “Catamount”. The catamount remains the mascot for the University of Vermont to this day. The last catamount / mountain lion in Vermont was killed in 1881. Occasional sightings persist, but rarely is there confirmation.
There is no breeding population of mountain lions in Virginia, with the last wild cougar in the state killed in Washington County in 1882. Experts say there is habitat for them in the Appalachians today, and as the western mountain lions continue to slowly roam to the east, they could one day return more permanently to Virginia.
Washington is home to approximately 1,500 mountain lions. They are distributed throughout the state, except for a pocket around the Columbia river basin where not many reside. As the population of humans in these areas, especially western Washington, increases, encounters may become more common. However cougar attacks remain rare, with only two maulings in the past 100 years. Visit the Washington cougar page here.
Just like their neighbor Virginia, there is no breeding population of mountain lions in West Virginia. There continue to be sightings and it is likely a transient mountain lion roams through on rare occasions.
There is no permanent breeding population of mountain lions in Wisconsin, however there are occasional confirmed sighings. In 2020 there were three confirmed mountain lions with a few others caught on trail cams. Biologists believe that the mountain lions seen belong to the groups found out in the Black Hill of South Dakota.
It is estimated there are about 2,000 mountain lions in Wyoming. In recent years the population of certain areas has decreased dramatically, due to a “perfect storm” of reintroduction of gray wolves, increased hunting of elk, and increased hunting of the mountain lions. There is a brewing debate in the state of whether mountain lion hunting should be taken off the table until population numbers increase.
About Mountain Lions
Mountain lions were historically found throughout nearly all of North and South America. Indians and native people of both continents often revered and had much admiration and folklore surrounding the big cats. As the European settlers arrived and populations grew, cougars became a prized animal to hunters, and a hated threat to farmers and ranchers livestock.
Through hunting and habitat loss, mountain lions were completely wiped out of the eastern United States and faced harsh population decline in others by the early 1900s. Due to changes in laws, protections and conservation efforts, mountain lion populations have rebounded in some western states. Many experts believe with the high deer population (cougars favorite prey animal) that mountain lions could begin to make a comeback in their historic eastern range, given enough available habitat.
Mountain lions are very adaptable to different types of environments, which is why they are so widespread across North and South America. They can live in any type of forest, as well as canyonland, lowland and mountainous deserts, dense brush and even open spaces with little cover. They don’t form packs though, preferring to stay solitary, and only a few can exist together peaceably within a 30 square mile range. This makes how much suitable land is available for them to roam one of the biggest limiting factors in their population.
Because cougars are so adaptable to different types of habitat, they have a huge range. From the northern Yukon in Canada, down to the southern Andes at the bottom of South America. In the United States, they was extirpated from most of the states east of the Mississippi River in the 200 years after European colonization. The U.S. range today is mainly across the western states with a small population in southern Florida. There is evidence that these western mountain lions are slowly spreading east and may recolonize the middle and eastern states.
The favorite meal of mountain lions are deer and elk. They hunt by stealth, often at dawn/dusk or at night, and often will surprise their prey from behind in an ambush. An adult cougar will consume an average of one deer per week. They will also hunt feral hogs, raccoons, rodents, porcupines and even coyotes. When they take prey that is too large to eat in one sitting, they will often drag it off to a protected spot and cover it in pine needles, grass or dry leaves to keep it hidden from other predators or scavengers that might want to steal their meal. This behavior may also slow down spoilage of the meat. They can then come back several times during the week to feed on the carcass.
Mountain lions are the fourth largest cat species in the world, behind the lion, tiger and jaguar.
Length (nose to tail tip): Males 7.9 ft, Females 6.7 ft. Tails account for about 25-35% of their body length.
Height (at the shoulder): 24-35 inches
Weight: Males 117-220 pounds, Females 64-141 pounds
Mountain lions at the poles are larger than those found at the equator. Coat color can vary with location also, sandy brown, reddish brown, to silvery – light gray. Whatever their color, it remains uniform across their body with no spots, stripes or patterns.
Many animals have a “breeding season” and only breed during certain parts of the year. However mountain lions can breed year round. Males and females don’t spend time together outside of the few day period when they decide to breed. The typically silent cats will make loud screaming noises. It is thought these sounds are made by the females to indicate they are in heat and ready to mate, while if the male screams it is to get the attention of females over other male rivals.
Females usually only give birth once every two years, and the litter size is typically three cubs, but can range from one to six. Cubs are born after 90 days, born small and blind, kept hidden by mom in thick vegetation for about 40-70 days. Males are not involved in the lives of the cubs after they are born. The cubs will continue to stay with their mother until about 10-26 months old. Sadly, it is common for at least one cub in the litter to die before reaching two years of age. But for those that make it to 48 months, they begin to disperse in search of their own home range.
While all mountain lions fall under the species Puma concolor, there has long been debate on how many subspecies exist across the cougars vast range. At one point there were over 30, but those began to narrow as DNA testing became possible and many were found to not be genetically different enough to be considered separate subspecies. In 2005, six subspecies were recognized:
- P.c. concolor
- P.c. puma
- P.c. cougar
- P.c. costaricensis
Depending on who you talk to, some scientists consider that only a few of those are valid distinctions. This list will likely continue to evolve as more sophisticated and widespread DNA testing is performed.
Another helpful resource for state cougar information is the cougarfund.org