The majority of Alaska is north of mountain lion distribution, and mountain lions are rare in neighboring northern British Columbia. Biologists in southern B.C. estimate the local mountain lion population to be about 3,500 individuals.
Though mountain lions have never had a large presence in the state, the future is less certain. Climate change could shift their range farther north and allow neighboring populations to colonize new areas.
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 sabre-toothed lion.
During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Alaska, 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.
Alaska's mountain lions have had a relatively simple history. Their future, may be more complex. On average, climate change is occurring much faster in polar regions than over the rest of the planet. This will almost certainly move the permafrost line north, with large implications for plant community composition and species distributions. As plant species shift, as do herbivores, such as deer. Mountain lions have been climactically limited in Alaska, but this warming trends and changes in resource availability may change that.