Cougars in the Greenway
The close proximity of wildlands to our homes and urban centers is one of many reasons the Mountains to Sound Greenway is such a special place. This proximity affords us diverse opportunities to experience the Greenway’s forests, mountains, waterways and of course, its wildlife. However, unbeknownst to many human residents of the Greenway, they sometimes share their neighborhood forests, greenbelts, and trails with one of North America’s most formidable predators, the cougar. While previous research on cougar wildland-urban ecology has shown that cougars and people coexist better than one might expect; cougar-human interactions – cougar sightings,
encounters with people, and attacks on livestock and pets, do occur on occasion. Minimizing the risks these large carnivores can present to public safety and private property is a management priority for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). But so too is the maintenance of viable, ecologically robust cougar populations. Consequently, understanding the relationship among cougar population characteristics (e.g., young to adult ratios, whether the population is growing or declining), cougar use of residential areas, and cougar-human interactions is critical for the long term conservation of cougars and their continued coexistence with people in the Greenway and beyond.
With these information needs in mind, WDFW recently initiated a new long-term, field-based research project investigating cougar wildland-urban ecology in western Washington – the West Cascades Cougar Project. Employing a combination of intensive fieldwork, cutting edge technology, and rigorous mathematical models, the West Cascades Cougar Project aims to understand how changes in cougar population growth, density, age structure, and immigration and emigration rates change the amount of time cougars spend in residential areas and how often these cats interact with people. Conducting this type of research sounds relatively straightforward, but the secretive nature of the cougar combined with low population densities and far-ranging movements make any type of research on cougars difficult. To address this issue, I capture and outfit cougars with Global Positioning System (GPS) radio collars during the winter
months. These collars are critical to the success of my project because the accuracy of GPS technology combined with an ability to collect observations on a relatively short interval (e.g., 4 hours) over a 2-year period generates extensive, high-quality datasets. These datasets allow me to quantify cougar movements, predation patterns, and proximity to residential development while also monitoring important population characteristics such as survival and reproduction. When I combine this data with behavioral information collected during both ground-based radio tracking sessions and investigations of the localities visited by cougars, a more complete picture of cougar ecology emerges for this wildland-urban environment
I began fieldwork for the West Cascades Cougar Project in December 2012 and I will likely continue these efforts through at least 2018. Currently, my research activities are focused in the project’s Snoqualmie study area where I have captured and collared 12 cougars (4 adult females, 2 subadult females, 3 adult males, and 3 subadult males) so far. As each of these cougars roams across the wildland-urban landscape, they provide a window into their secretive world and valuable information that is allowing me to answer a variety of research questions. For example, the majority of cougars captured to date (9 of 12) have used residential portions of the landscape to some extent. However, all of these cougars have spent the majority of their time in wildland areas away from residential development. Insights like this are critical for developing effective cougar conservation and management strategies.
Ultimately, I believe this research is important because the continued growth of Washington’s human population and subsequent expansion into wildland areas creates the potential for more conflicts between large carnivores and people in the future. My goal is to provide wildlife managers, policy makers, and regional landscape planners with the information they need to successfully conserve cougar populations and inform the public of what coexistence requires. Working with cougars and people within this context can be challenging, but fortunately for all of us, the Mountains to Sound Greenway provides the ideal landscape to obtain the information we need to succeed and possibly, a valuable model for how people can successfully coexist with cougars and other large carnivores well into the future.