January 2018 brought a new season of cougar captures for the Wolf-Cougar Project. When capturing cougars for research, winter is the best time to find these large felines. Snow makes tracking easier, and both cougars and the animals they eat congregate at lower elevations in valley bottoms to avoid the deep snow accumulating up high. Not to mention that a blanket of snow atop Washington’s conifer forests make for a scene worthy of a Bob Ross painting.
We catch cougars using either box traps or with the help of local houndsmen and trained hounds. Box trapping allows us to capture cougars in areas with more roads and private lands, whereas hounds help us cover larger amounts of ground in National Forests. Of sixteen cougars captured in 2016/2017, six were still alive in 2018. Ten were no longer part of the study due to either collar failure or mortalities caused by hunter harvest, agency removals, starvation, being killed by other cougars, or unknown factors.
Why Cougars Die
Hunting, agency removals, disease, starvation, and intra-species conflict can result in death for cougars in this region. The cougar hunting season runs throughout the winter in Washington, Idaho, and Canada, with many cougars taken when hunters are out looking for deer or elk. Young cougars stay with their mothers until approximately 18 months of age, looking like full-grown adults before they disperse. These “teenage” cats, known as subadults, sometimes do not have the hunting skills needed to make it through their first year on their own, while other times they wander into the territories of adult cats. Subadult male cougars in particular can die in territorial disputes with other adult males. Our research will allow us to better understand the different causes of mortality for cougars in Washington, and how a growing wolf population might be impacting cougar survival.
Our goal for last winter was to deploy at least twelve more collars across our two study regions to help us understand how these large cats interact with wolves, the other large predator in the region. A typical winter day starts out by warming up snowmobiles and donning enough layers for a full day outdoors. Last winter, temperatures were markedly warmer, with most days around 30F instead of the frigid temps during the winter of 2016-2017 which could reach -15F. We do not capture cougars in temperatures below 5F, but we’re often out in colder temperatures looking for tracks and making plans for warmer days!
Cougars often walk down roads or cross them, so we spend the bulk of each capture day searching roads for fresh tracks. When we find tracks, we want to make the chase as short as possible for both the cougars and the hounds. We do as much of the work as we can ourselves, following tracks to see if they cross another road farther on or circle back on themselves, before letting the four-legged canine experts on the trail.
Once a cougar climbs up a tree we move the pursuing hounds back, set up a safety net to catch a potential fall, dart the animal with an anesthetic, and climb up the tree to lower the anesthetized cat to the ground. We weigh the cougar and then estimate its age based on a method called gumline recession. Older animals have a larger gap between the gum and where the canine tooth begins to taper.
Then, we affix small ear tags with an identification number to each ear and attach a global positioning system (GPS) collar that will allow us to track the animal for two to three years. After approximately 45 minutes, the cougar slowly begins to wake up and we leave. We surpassed our goal and put out seventeen new collars last winter, bringing our total to thirty-three cougars collared so far!