The Olympic Cougar Project

 

M16, a male puma being followed as part of the new Olympic Cougar Project. Photograph by Mark Elbroch

Panthera’s Puma Program has been silent for awhile, but we’ve not been idle. We’ve been changing and growing, and we’re launching new projects in both North and South America. Here, we introduce the Olympic Cougar Project. It is a large-scale, multi-national collaborative effort, in which we’re assessing mountain lion (or cougars as they are locally called in the Pacific northwest) connectivity in western Washington State.

Previous research on the genetic diversity of mountain lions in Washington State highlighted that cats on the Olympic Peninsula west and south of Seattle may already be in trouble. They are genetically less diverse than those on the mainland, likely because the Peninsula’s mountain lions are isolated from mainland populations. Without doubt, the situation is getting worse.

The Olympic Peninsula is fast becoming an island. The Interstate-5 (I-5) highway corridor south of Seattle is one of the fastest developing regions on the west coast, and is increasingly severing wildlife connectivity in western Washington.

Location of the Olympic Cougar Project. The red arrow denotes connectivity between the Peninsula and the mainland across the I-5 corridor. 1=Macaw Tribe, 2=Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, 3=Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, 4=Quinault Tribe, 5=Skokomish Tribe

South of the peninsula lies the massive Columbia River, forming a considerable barrier for mountain lions traveling that direction. Discharging more water than any other river in the northwest, a mountain lion would need to swim about 6 miles to cross the mouth of the river. Mountain lions that wind their way eastward, closer to I-5, can shrink that crossing to a feasible swim as short as 2/3 of a mile. There are stories of mountain lions swimming across water bodies up to a mile wide, but much of the river south of the Olympic Peninsula is 2-6 miles wide.

West of the peninsula lies the Pacific Ocean, and to the north the Strait of Juan de Fuca which, at its narrowest point, offers a 15-mile swim to Vancouver Island across shipping lanes full of massive ships and hungry orcas. The bustling Puget Sound sits to the east. Navy shipyards, ferry traffic between Seattle and offshore islands, and poisonous trace metals from old industry seeping into the estuary make this area treacherous for any wildlife, pumas included.

Looking at all the options, the south and the east are still the best possibilities for pumas to immigrate and emigrate from the Peninsula. However, this means traveling through increasingly developed areas along the I-5 corridor from Tacoma, WA southward to the Oregon border. Certainly to the south, closer to Oregon, that path is much less developed and much easier, but with time the highway will widen and infrastructure and communities will grow to create a wider developed corridor, and a noose for wildlife like mountain lions, that require large connected landscapes to maintain their health over time.

F6, an adult female mountain lion (or cougar) being followed by our new Olympic Cougar project. Photograph by Mark Elbroch

Ultimately, our goal is to map mountain lion connectivity, identify bottlenecks and blockages in wildlife corridors, and work with state developers to ensure I-5 is modified to aid wildlife on the Olympic Peninsula for generations to come. Within this umbrella, we’re also studying mountain lion dispersal, assessing competition between mountain lions and bobcats, and working with an incredible array of talented scientists to analyze movement and genetic data collected from mountain lions throughout western Washington.

Our core team is composed of people working for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT), and Panthera scientists. LEKT received funds from the Administration for Native Americans to study mountain lions and predation as part of building their Seventh Generation Wildlife Management Plan, to guide the Tribe in the sustainable use of natural resources. Kim Sager-Fradkin, Wildlife Program Manager, leads the LEKT team, and I lead the Panthera team. Cameron Macias is the first LEKT tribal member to attend graduate school to study natural resource management, and is analyzing mountain lion and bobcat genetic samples collected in our study, with support from a Panthera Kaplan Graduate Grant. Together, LEKT and Panthera are forging alliances with additional tribal partners and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Department to share existing data sets and strategically gather additional data to fill knowledge gaps on the Peninsula’s wild cats.

An intimate video of M16 as he investigates his first encounter with one of our motion-triggered video cameras.

With the Olympic Cougar Project, we’re attempting something bold, something big, and something swift to protect key routes that will maintain and increase connectivity among pumas in western Washington. In the face of industrial development, urban sprawl and natural hazards, it’s a colossal undertaking, but the results will be rewarding beyond belief. If we succeed, and we will, our work may save untold thousands of cats and other animals long into the future. Join us to support the effort. And stay tuned, there is so much more to come from the Olympic Cougar Project.

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Common Sense Conservation to Keep Kittens Safer

Three of F61’s kittens in a typical fortress of downed wood, in which she gave birth. Photo by Mark Elbroch.

An early snow had painted the landscape completely white, and we were navigating the slippery roads of backcountry northwest Wyoming as part of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. We paused to look at footprints of a mountain lion we called F61, where she crossed the road and climbed towards the ridgeline. Just up the road, we found a houndsman’s truck tucked up against the trees. I turned off the engine and we stepped out into the crisp, still air. We did not hear the baying of hunting hounds—perhaps he hadn’t found her. Just ravens and wind.

We knew that F61 was nursing four tiny kittens at the time, tucked up in a woody fortress to the south across the river. If she were killed, four more mountain lions would die. It’s an unavoidable reality that, on occasion, hunters unintentionally kill females with dependent young—subsequently dooming the kittens along with their mother.

This is why we conducted new research just published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. We set out to study female movements and behaviors while they were caring for the youngest and most vulnerable kittens in the den (See this blog for a description of a puma den). “Denning” is the period beginning when kittens are born and ending when they start traveling with their mother to her kill sites.

F61 with her 4 tiny kittens in the den. Photo by Mark Elbroch

We used 12 dens to determine the average length of denning, and 34 dens we documented over the course of our work to determine the following—if we delay legal mountain lion hunting until December 1 each year, we can avoid the denning period for 91% of mountain lion families.

Such a change would allow hunters the best opportunity to detect mountain lion family groups in the field, and to avoid inadvertently hunting females with kittens. It’s also a change that provides mountain lion families greater safety while their kittens are most vulnerable. It’s also a change that reflects a growing appreciation for predators in an evolving world.

In my mind, it’s just common sense conservation.

The morning after our encounter, Michelle Peziol, the Project Manager of Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project, followed F61’s trail from where we’d found her tracks crossing the road. Climbing the hill and traversing the ridge line, she saw that the mountain lion’s trail was intercepted by a hunter on horseback and his hounds. She discovered the tree where F61 had sought refuge. The area was a mess—churned up by the feet of cat, baying hounds, horse, and man.

A portrait of F51 and her kitten. Photo by Mark Elbroch

At the same time, I toured F61’s usual haunts and found her using the beacon in her collar. The hunter had let her go. I caught up with him several days later. He was gracious and recounted a beautiful day on the mountain—his first day hunting of the year, he said. He described F61 well, saying he’d noticed her collar and realized she must be one of the mountain lions we studied. He valued research, so he hauled in his hounds and walked away, letting her be.

The hunter had spared F61, and in doing so, had saved the lives of four more mountain lions, too. He was more than relieved when I told him.

This is simple change that can aid mountain lions right now. Spread the word: Delay mountain lion hunting seasons in western states until December 1 to protect the youngest kittens. It’s common sense conservation that we can apply immediately to increase protections for mountain lion families in hunted populations, supporting the shared goals of conservation scientists, wildlife advocates, and hunters alike.

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The Importance of Fieldwork and Field Skills

Young male mountain lion with a mule deer fawn killed by his mother.

Among my favorite activities is investigating mountain lion kill sites—meaning the work of actually going into the field and finding the remains of prey killed by mountain lions. We just published new research in the Journal of Mammalogy that shows that these expeditions in search of prey remains are not just enjoyable, they are also the best way to study carnivore foraging behaviors.

Every kill site is different, and some are tough to find. But over the years, I’ve begun to better predict where a cat might feel secure enough to feed and hide the remains of their prey. Flies are a great clue too—the sound and sight of them have often drawn me to a hidden carcass or a subtle area blood-flecked and sprinkled with tiny bits of tissue and bone easily overlooked. Magpies and eagles are even better, their vocalizations provide guidance from afar and if you can spot them on the ground, then you’ve found your kill.

Modern research on mountain lions relies heavily upon GPS technology built into collars. Location data are transferred via satellites to our computers while the collar is still on the cat, thus we can follow them in near real time. It’s absolutely amazing. When we see a group of location points on a map, we know a mountain lion has remained in place for some duration—what that animal was doing can only be determined with certainty by visiting the site to see what happened (and even then its not certain because we rely upon tracking skills to interpret signs; tracking will always be an imperfect art and science).

An elk killed and cached by a female mountain lion in northwest Wyoming.

Now it might be apparent to those who know me—that studying mountain lion kill sites brings together my dual interests in wildlife tracking and mountain lions. Its as if this work were created with me in mind. For the most part, our research teams (including those with professional tracking skills: Casey McFarland, Neal Wight, Matt Nelson, Max Allen, Michelle Peziol, Connor O’Malley, Anna Kusler, Blake Lowrey, and myself) spend almost all of our time visiting these sites in the field—its time consuming work, but I believe, well worth the effort.

Other researchers, however, invest elsewhere, and rely upon statistics and mathematics to measure kill rates (how often a carnivore kills prey) and even prey selection (what carnivores eat). They do this by visiting just a sample of locations in the field and then extrapolating what they observed to every area a mountain lion or other carnivore stopped and spent time, with the help of complex mathematical models. This approach is appealing because it saves lots of time in the field, and therefore money. Thus, the mathematical method has spread rapidly across the globe where it is being applied to more and more carnivore species.

My coauthors, Blake Lowrey and Heiko Wittmer, and I tested this mathematical approach to estimating kill rates against our own heavy-fieldwork approach, in which we try to visit every location a mountain lion stops for 4 or more hours on the landscape (we used to do 2 or more hours but 2-hr sites yielded very little prey data). We did this for 3 different study systems in which we’ve worked (Chilean Patagonia, Northern California, western Colorado), and found that the mathematical approach yielded unpredictably, inaccurate and imprecise estimates of kill rates. This was mostly due to the fact that carnivores are inconsistent in how they feed. They eat prey of different sizes, so the associated time it takes to consume their kills is highly variable. Mountain lions and other carnivores also have their kills stolen by bears and condors, and thus they sometimes feed for very short time periods from a large animal they killed. This confuses computer models, which tend to predict that places where a mountain lion spent little time must have been a place where it rested rather than killed prey.

An adult female mountain lion stands over an 11-month old elk calf she killed and cached.

Fieldwork is not just enjoyable, its justifiable. Spending time in the field remains our best approach to studying carnivore diets and kill rates. This is excellent news for those of us that have invested so much time in learning tracking skills, and so delight in forays afield where we apply our trade.

Do Mountain Lions Target Bulls and Bucks?

F47, an adult female mountain lion, turns back to look at the camera. Photograph by Steve Winter / National Geographic.

 

I’m often told that mountain lions target adult male deer and elk, called bucks and bulls by many people. Its become a point of contention among deer and elk hunters, and has fueled persecution of mountain lions. We just published a paper in which we tested this assumption in two areas of the Rocky Mountains.

I share a longer blog about our results on National Geographic’s CatWatch. But in short, we found that mountain lions went out of their way to target the youngest age classes of deer and elk, not the adult males.

The full article published in Wildlife Research can be found here. If you’d like a copy, please send a message through our project Facebook page.  Thank you for your interest.