How We Uncover Secrets of the Olympic Peninsula's Cougars
January 19, 2021
As a Panthera Winston Cobb Memorial Fellow, I spent the summer working with the researchers of Panthera’s Olympic Cougar Project to track the cougars of the Olympic Peninsula. When today’s wildlife scientists combine the ancient skills of the tracker with cutting edge GPS technology, as the Olympic Cougar Project does, the research can reveal new discoveries about animal behavior and help us better protect wild cats.
My supervisor, coworker and I crouch in the mud of the riverbank and examine two sets of cougar tracks stretched out before us. The edges of the teardrop toes are sharply etched in the ground and the mud of the heel pads glisten from fresh moisture. Both sets cut through the many elk tracks woven into the mud and travel south downriver in the direction of our camp a little more than a kilometer away.
“What do you think, is this a mom and her kitten?” I ask my supervisor excitedly.
“Probably a male that was with a female,” he says. “Following the elk herd.”
The elk herd that made these tracks was likely the same one spotted by my coworker across the river from our camp the night before. If that’s true and the trails are as fresh as we think, we’re probably less than a day behind the two cougars (also known as pumas or mountain lions). They could’ve been right across the river from us the night before if our interpretation of the tracks’ story is right, glancing our tents from across the river as they continued their midnight travels. I would love to stay and examine this scene more, but it’s getting late in the day and we have much more distance to cover to our destination.
With the generous support of Panthera’s Winston Cobb Memorial Fellowship program, I spent the summer working with the researchers of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and Panthera Puma Program to track the cougars of the Olympic Peninsula. This collaboration is called the Olympic Cougar Project, a multi-year research effort aimed partly at connecting cougar populations on the peninsula to the rest of Washington state. To figure out where the cougars of the peninsula go and why, the researchers track where they go to rest, what they eat and how they navigate through the mosaic of public and private lands. It is by piecing together the individual cats’ life stories that researchers learn more about their ecology and discover how to protect the corridors they use to travel between the peninsula and the mainland.
Tracking the many organisms that trek across Earth’s surface is one of humanity’s oldest pastimes. It is an art of investigation, interpretation and storytelling. Track and sign left by wildlife are the sentences they write about their lives, and trackers are the interpreters of those sentences. When today’s wildlife scientists combine the ancient skills of the tracker with cutting-edge GPS technology, as the Olympic Cougar Project does, the research can lead to insightful discoveries about animal behavior and help us better protect them.
Tracking the cougars begins with collecting data from collars specially fitted on these wild cats, which record the GPS coordinates of the cat’s location at specific times throughout the day. When there is a series of three or more of these GPS points within a certain distance and time of one another, it creates a group of points on a map called a cluster, identified by a special algorithm on a computer. Once the researchers know where the cats have recently been, they travel to these clusters and search for evidence of what the cougar was doing at the site.
Once at the cluster, the biologists use their tracking skills to look for specific types of sign left behind by the cougars. This is the part of the job that feels like a scavenger hunt, where the prize is finding what the cougar left behind. While tracks like the ones we found along the riverbed are a treat, the project is looking for their beds and remains of their prey, respectively called bed sites and kill sites. Bed sites, where cougars have rested, are subtly depressed areas of the ground and often crescent or ovular shaped (think of how your cat curls up or lies outstretched on your bed). The beds are confirmed by sifting through the ground for the fine, white hair from their belly.
At kill sites, cougars will often hide their prey in a secluded spot of the forest and cover it with duff or vegetation, a behavior known as caching. When prey remains are found, researchers take note of what species they took, how they were hidden and if there were any scavengers that had decided to partake in the cougar’s meal, among other things. You can easily spend over an hour investigating a cluster, taking the time to look for subtle clues leading to the sign and losing yourself in the fun of putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
Researching big cats requires a medley of methods both old and new. We must rely on excellent trackers, such as those on the Olympic Cougar Project, as well as new technology to help researchers produce excellent science protecting the cougars of the Olympic Peninsula. I can't wait to see what stories the tracks of the Olympic Peninsula’s cougars reveal as the project continues.