The Olympic Cougar Project represents an important and exciting partnership between Panthera and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to study and protect pumas in the dense coniferous forests, glacier-clad mountains and rugged coastlines of Washington’s stunning Olympic Peninsula. Pumas, also called cougars locally, have lower genetic diversity on the Peninsula than in other areas of the state. Together we are establishing additional partnerships to continue towards our goal of increasing connectivity and genetic viability of these big cats.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT), located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, lies at the mouth of the Elwha River—a river at the heart of tribal cultural, ceremonial and spiritual well-being. The Elwha Tribe is best known for the role it played in the largest dam removal in U.S. history in 2011, which has restored roughly 80 miles of upstream habitat for threatened and endangered Pacific salmon and 800 acres of floodplain habitat for terrestrial wildlife. Our heritage and history have always included protecting the natural resources that surround and sustain us.
Since 2009, the LEKT wildlife program has conducted numerous research projects within the Tribe’s traditional use areas, including on Columbian black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk, both species of cultural concern for subsistence harvest. We have also embarked upon several studies looking at the response of various wildlife species to the removal of the Elwha dams. In 2018 the wildlife program initiated a cougar research project to help us address a knowledge gap about the predator population in our area.
Shortly after starting our cougar project, we were excited to learn that Dr. Mark Elbroch, Director of Panthera’s Puma Program, had recently moved to the area. Mark immediately jumped on board as a full partner, bringing his vast knowledge of cougars to the project. Since that time, we have grown our project together – adding experienced field technicians and learning alongside one another how cougars interact with their environment in this (very wet!) temperate coniferous rainforest that we call home.
Together with Panthera, we are seeking to establish new partnerships with local area tribes, as well as with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Olympic National Park (ONP). To date, we have formalized partnerships with the Skokomish and Makah Tribes, and are actively working to solidify additional partnerships with other Peninsula tribes. The collective goal of the Olympic Cougar Project is to support and enhance wildlife connectivity between the Olympic Mountain Range on the Peninsula and the southern Cascadia on the mainland across the Interstate-5 corridor. We also aim to expand our understanding of cougar behavior and juvenile dispersal patterns across the entire Olympic Peninsula by sharing existing datasets and gathering additional data on the local cougar population.
We know that cougars on the Olympic Peninsula have lower genetic diversity than in other areas of the state, perhaps because it is becoming increasingly difficult for cougars to emigrate from or immigrate to the Peninsula. We are surrounded by saltwater on three sides (Puget Sound to the east, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west), and to the south, the Columbia River and the I-5 corridor present additional impediments to movement. Interstate 5 is a major arterial that bisects the state from north to south, very likely influencing animal movement and gene flow on and off the Olympic Peninsula.
While previous research on Olympic Peninsula cougars has primarily documented home range size and prey selection of adult cougars, information on dispersing juveniles has been lacking. By examining the behavior of juvenile cougars, we hope to provide a function test of connectivity across the I-5 corridor, as well as provide valuable insight into how they disperse. This includes where they go, what they eat, how they interact with other animals, and ultimately, where they set up breeding territories of their own. Eventually, we want to know whether any young animals succeed in leaving the Peninsula to join other cougar populations.
Our Olympic Cougar Project has three primary study objectives:
1. Examine cougar behavior and dispersal patterns.
In order to examine cougar movement and dispersal patterns, we are affixing GPS collars to cougars of both sexes and all ages, with the primary goal of targeting juveniles before they leave their mothers and embark on their own journey at 15-20 months of age. GPS collars provide us with frequent location data on individual animals, providing exciting information on cougar movements across our study area. Collars communicate via satellite every 1-2 hours (under optimal conditions), and when an animal spends 4+ hours in a given area, we visit those sites (called “clusters”) to determine animal behavior and prey selection. When meat remains on a prey item, we often deploy a camera at the carcass to record images of the cougar(s) revisiting the kill, or the myriad other wildlife that feed upon cougar kills (spotted skunks, bobcats, coyotes, weasels, bears, golden and bald eagles, turkey vultures, ravens and crows).
2. Conduct cougar genetic analyses.
We have been fortunate to work with Rogue Detection Teams—a non-profit organization that uses highly trained (and tennis-ball obsessed) scat detection dogs and their handlers to locate and collect scat samples for genetic analyses. The project’s graduate student Cameron Macias, an LEKT tribal member and Kaplan grant recipient, is analyzing DNA from cougar and bobcat scat in order to identify individual animals and estimate population size for each species.
3. Implement a camera grid.
We are in the second year of testing a widespread camera grid with the ultimate goal of helping us build upon previous research and to develop long-term and cost-effective methods to monitor wildlife species within our traditional use areas. We are also collaborating with the Jamestown S’Klallam and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribes and ONP to develop standardized camera grid methodology to ensure consistency in data collection across the Olympic Peninsula.
We are happy to report that given our wide-ranging objectives, our crews are keeping busy, staying active, seeing amazing wildlife, having awesome (and often challenging) experiences and frequently getting soaking wet in the dense forests and drainages of the Peninsula. We are currently monitoring 12 cougars—eight adults, three dispersing juveniles and one dependent kitten. The intrepidRogue Detection Teams were in the field this spring, thrashing through vegetation and scaling cliffs in pursuit of their quarry, and collected roughly 34 cougar and 109 bobcat scats, which our graduate student is analyzing this winter. Lastly, we deployed our 2019 camera grid in July and August. Our crews and dedicated citizen-science volunteers are monitoring 74 cameras for six months. The camera data will allow us to gather population estimates for a whole suite of wildlife species, including cougars, bobcats, deer, elk and black bears, within the Tribe’s traditional use area.
Please stay tuned for future updates from the Olympic Cougar Project. We are excited to share more details on each of our three project components.