The cougar is the second largest cat in North America, with only the jaguar exceeding it in size and weight. At a length of 7 to 8 feet, an adult male cougar can weigh as much as 250 pounds. Also known as panthers, pumas, or mountain lions, cougars are known to inhabit the Sierras as well as much of the American and Canadian west. Although the population is a fraction of what it once was, cougars have been responsible for at least ten fatal attacks in the United States since 1890. Cougars have an excellent sense of smell and can sprint for a short distance at speeds that approach 40 miles an hour. The cougar is an unpredictable predator that prefers to kill and eat larger mammals such as deer.
If a hiker encounters a cougar he should remain calm and not run, as this could immediately trigger an attack. Back away slowly, trying to look as large as can be to discourage an attack.
There have been approximately 50 deaths in the U.S. from black bear attacks since 1900. The black bear also lives in the Sierras. It frequently comes into contact with people as it is attracted to garbage and food that campers may have. The black bear can weigh as much as 600 pounds. But the average male specimen is normally much smaller, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds. The black bear has claws that are non-retractable and short, making the bear an excellent climber. The black bear is an omnivore, eating just about anything it can find. Bears in the Sierras have been known to come to garbage dumpsters in search of food and will be tempted by the smell of food at campsites. This makes it imperative to store food properly when camping outdoors. The best place to keep food is in the trunk of a vehicle. Bear-proof containers are available in bear country at the local sporting goods and ranger stations.
The mule deer (pictured above) is commonly seen in the Sierras. While there is no threat of attack, it will run out into the path of an oncoming motor vehicle, possibly precipitating an accident.
Coyote (pictured top), on the other hand, have been known to attack people. The one fatality from a coyote attack in California came in 1981; the victim was a three-year-old girl. There have been several other well-documented attacks on people over the years, with children often the target. Coyotes can weigh as much as 50 pounds and are extremely intelligent predators. They are fond of killing and eating small pets such as cats and miniature breeds of dogs.
Rattlesnakes are native to the Sierras as well, but only pose a danger when they are stepped on or when they feel threatened. Their bite is venomous but not usually fatal. The Northern Pacific rattler can grow as long as 5.5 feet and is most often seen sunning themselves near trails.