“And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion.”
Perched on a hillside a few miles from the Canadian border, raising an antenna into the air and listening for a beep from a radio-collared cougar, Hilary Cooley is doing what she dreamed of as a kid.
“I remember watching the Discovery Channel and seeing biologists on the slope with the antenna, tracking the wolves in Yellowstone just after the reintroduction, and I thought, ‘that would be so cool,'” she says.
Now in her final year as a doctoral student in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University, Cooley seems perfectly fitted, even fated, for the work she does. She’s strong enough to wrangle a snowmobile around fallen trees and hike uphill through deep snow carrying a 30-pound pack. And she’s not just a WSU Cougar; she got her undergrad degree at the University of Vermont, whose mascot is the catamount. Same creature, different name.
“Back there it didn’t mean anything, because there weren’t any cats around,” she says. “Here it’s different.”
There are cougars in Washington-seemingly, more than ever before. In 1995, the year before a statewide ballot initiative banned the hunting of cougars with hounds, there were 255 verified human-cougar encounters in the state. By 2000 the number had nearly quadrupled. It has since returned to pre-ban levels in some areas, but the public perception is that cougars, after their near-extermination in the 20th century, are making a comeback-and must be stopped.
Rob Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at WSU and Cooley’s advisor, disagrees. His research team has found that in parts of the state where the number of complaints has been highest, cougar populations are either holding steady or declining. That the big cats are becoming more visible, but not more numerous, is just one of the paradoxes stemming from the same source: much of what we thought we knew about cougars is wrong.
The main problem has been the lack of detailed information about cougars in their natural habitat. In the past, researchers might put a radio collar on just one or a few cats in an area. They had no way to draw accurate conclusions about how cougars of different sexes and ages divvy up the habitat, where and what they hunt, and how they interact with each other and with humans.
Over the past several years, Wielgus and his students have begun to fill that gap by doing intensive studies of cougars in three areas of Washington. The Selkirk Mountains, in the far northeast near Metaline Falls, is home to a population that ranges into northern Idaho and neighboring British Columbia. The Wedge, in the northeastern part of the sate, is a rough triangle outlined by the Kettle and Columbia Rivers and the Canadian border. The other area is near Cle Elum and Roslyn, just west of Ellensburg. The researchers use hounds to tree the cats, which are then tranquilized and fitted with transmitter collars. At the start of the study the collars only sent a VHF radio signal; now they carry both a radio and a GPS (Global Positioning System) transmitter. By collaring and following several dozen cougars, Cooley and fellow students Ben Maletzke and Hugh Robinson, and Donald Katnik (’02 Ph.D. Natural Resource Sciences) and Catherine Lambert (’03 M.S. Natural Resource Sciences) have provided a detailed look at cougar behavior-and some big surprises.
Wielgus says one clear finding from their work is that wildlife managers should not assume that an increase in complaints about cougars means there are more cougars around. In many cases, just the opposite is true: even a declining population can lead to more sightings and more complaints, if the remaining cougars are adolescents who don’t know any better than to stay away from humans.
Based on his work over the last decade, Wielgus says that with solitary predators such as cougars, age matters. One of the biggest influences on how the animals behave around humans is the age structure of their population, especially how many young males there are. And that, in turn, depends largely on how heavily they are hunted and how many big males are taken out of the population.
He explains that although cougars don’t live in packs, they do have contact with others of their kind. The interactions between adolescents and adult males help teach the youngsters what is and isn’t appropriate prey, and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.
Young male cougars make trouble, he says, “because they don’t know what they’re doing. When you have no old guys left, then no one controls the troublemakers.” He says a juvenile cougar is like an 18-year-old human. Take out the dominant males who keep them in line, and “that’s all you’ve got, is 18-year-old males running the show. Just try to imagine what the world would be like.”
Photographer Bob Hubner and I join Cooley at the Wedge for two days in January 2006. We want to see for ourselves what her research entails. With luck, we’ll witness a capture and see a cougar up close.
The weather has been mild lately, and our first day with Cooley is about 30 degrees and stone clear. She says the warm weather will make tracking difficult, because bare ground and crusty snow don’t hold scent as well as soft snow. The study area is mostly still covered, but the snow is less than a foot deep in some places and everywhere has the glassy look of snow that has partially melted and refrozen.
We cover many miles by truck on county and forest service roads deeply rutted with packed slush. As we drive, Cooley keeps the VHF receiver on “Scan,” so it cycles through all the frequencies. When we hear a beep, she asks which frequency it is. That tells her which cougar’s collar sent the signal. Cooley constantly checks in by radio with wildlife technician Gabe Wilson (’04 Wildlife Ecology) and houndsman Tom MacArthur, who are monitoring receivers in their own vehicles a few miles away. Ideally, the same cougar will be detected by more than one of the searchers, allowing them to triangulate and pinpoint the cat’s location with a fair degree of accuracy.
That’s not how it works today. Most of the beeps we hear are faint, except for the ones that turn out to come from Cooley’s hound, Emma, whose “let’s go!” whine exactly matches the receiver beep. The few times we get a decent signal, Cooley pulls over and tries to get an antenna reading from the side of the road. Every time, the signal fades or moves north into Canada, where she can’t follow.
We encounter a couple of men on ATVs, who recognize Cooley and stop to chat with her. At a road crossing, an older couple in a Toyota pickup truck wave us over. They ask Cooley if she’s found a cougar today, then report, “We live way back there and we haven’t seen any all winter.”
We rendezvous with Wilson and MacArthur, who share what they’ve heard from the people they’ve met on the road. Cooley says interpreting information from local residents is tough. Some observers are reliable, but often there’s over-reporting of cougars because of old beliefs and “groupthink.”
“It’s like anything in the media,” she says. “When there’s one report on cougars, the number of reported sightings goes way up.” Most of the time, the reported “cougar” isn’t a cougar. It’s a bobcat, or a dog, or even-she says this has actually happened-a large housecat.
Tracks are often misinterpreted, too.
“They aren’t complete nomads, they have a territory and they go around and around it,” says technician Wilson. He compares the number of tracks a cougar leaves in well-traveled parts of its territory with the number of tracks we make going from our front door to the car or mailbox. If a female cougar with a couple of big kittens walks through a yard a few times, it can look like the cats are traveling in herds.
Cooley gets out her laptop to download the latest GPS readings from the collared cats. The collars send a signal to a satellite at programmed times; researchers can download the data at their convenience. The technology allows them to get a more detailed picture of the cats’ movements than has ever been possible before.
Cooley shows us the map on her computer screen. Data points show the location of each cougar up to six times every day. Seeing all the points for a certain cat, it’s easy to draw the outline of its 100- to 150-square-mile territory. A male may overlap with more than one female, but females don’t overlap much with other females, and males don’t overlap with other males. Where there’s an area on the map with no GPS points, Cooley knows there’s probably an uncollared cougar living there that she can then attempt to capture and collar.
When a cat’s GPS signal remains in a small area for several days, the cat has probably made a kill and is staying near the carcass. When a female stays put for longer than that, she’s probably denning up and giving birth. Cooley has a good idea when that will happen, because she knows when mating occurs: the signal from a male accompanies the signal from a female for several days. Cooley then counts forward three months to anticipate when the litter is due. She visits den sites about six weeks later to tag the kittens and fit them with expandable transmitter collars, so she can follow them as they grow up and move out on their own.
GPS technology has revolutionized her work, but even with the hot new tools, Cooley spends a lot of time driving and hiking.
“Without the field component, you miss a lot,” she says. “I’m almost glad we didn’t have GPS collars the first while, because we spent a ton of time out there tracking. You learn a lot just walking around out there.”
Since a cougar capture doesn’t seem to be in the cards today, Cooley sends MacArthur and Wilson west to try to locate the cougar she’s named Faith, in hopes of getting a line on her for tomorrow. Then she, Hubner, and I go looking for a kill site. A week ago, Cooley got GPS readings that showed Old Girl hanging out in one spot for several days. The cat had probably made a kill and was staying with it as long as there was still something edible to stay with.
The three of us pile onto a snowmobile; Emma runs behind. After a mile or so of whomping over the forest road’s snowdrifts, we reach a creek. It feels good to get off the machine and walk. Guided by her handheld GPS unit, Cooley leads us about a kilometer into the woods.
A short way up a hill, there it is, right where the GPS said it would be. This is like no wildlife carcass I’ve seen during my years as a hiker. It’s a circle of hair a few feet across. No bones, no hooves, no skin, just hair, in a dense layer a couple of inches deep. Cooley says the bones were probably carried off by coyotes or ravens.
Just downhill from us, Emma finds a prize: the mandible. The two halves are still together, pink-stained and fresh-looking. The teeth are high-crowned, meaning the deer was relatively young. Cooley will be able to determine the species and age in the lab.
We walk back to the snowmobile and sled out to the truck. Wilson and MacArthur check in by radio; they didn’t find Faith.
The second day of our quest is just as gorgeous as the first.
“It’s beautiful to look at, but for what we wanted to do today, it’s not very good,” says MacArthur. The surface of the snow is even harder than yesterday. The dogs will have a tough time staying with the scent, but we’re going to let them try. We snowmobile an hour in to a spot where he found cougar tracks the day before. Hubner rides with Wilson, I ride with Cooley, and MacArthur pulls a black plastic sled carrying Emma and his two hounds. Sooner’s a black-and-tan, about 11 years old, and vocal. Newly’s an eight-year-old tricolor whose previous owner used her to hunt cougars.
“She’s a one-in-a-million dog,” says MacArthur. She’s a tireless tracker but dangerously quiet, rarely sounding off until she’s on a hot scent or right near a cat.
“I figure it’ll get her eaten some day,” he says. “She’ll be quiet, and jump a cat in the rocks, and that’ll be it. I shouldn’t think things like that. It worries me.”
When we reach the tracks, Emma starts baying immediately. Sooner chimes in. MacArthur releases the dogs, who snuffle avidly around the tracks and then dash away up a small drainage. Emma barks often, Sooner occasionally, Newly not at all. Wilson says we can get excited when we hear Newly bark. But she never does. Within a few minutes, the dogs are back at the start zone. MacArthur urges them onto the trail again, and again they head into the woods. He follows them on foot. We sled out on a parallel track. We see the dogs reach a bare patch, where they circle for a few minutes, then tentatively move on up the drainage. Within 50 yards, they’ve lost the trail.
Cooley appreciates the irony of using hounds to capture the cats that can no longer be legally hunted with dogs. She’s a “dog person” herself, she says, and the chance to work with Emma is one of her favorite parts of the research. She disagrees with the argument made by supporters of the ban that hunting cougars with hounds is not humane. Hounds tree the cat they’re chasing, which allows the hunter to get a good look at the cat before shooting it. The alternative that’s been used since the ban went into effect is to let people shoot on sight.
“They bundled it with a big-game package,” says Cooley. “If you got a deer permit, for an extra five bucks they’d throw in a cougar tag. So there’s tons of people out there trying to get a deer or an elk, and a lot of them have cat tags. The number of cats taken went way up. And the problem with that is, you can’t be selective about it. You see a cat across a field and you shoot it, and you don’t know if it’s an adult or if it’s a juvenile, if it’s a male or a female.” The female harvest went way up, she says, resulting in the death of existing kittens and a steep drop in the production of new litters.
“When it’s in a tree, if you use a hound, you’re right there, and if the hunter is experienced they can tell what sex it is and decide not to take it. It’s more selective,” she says.
She, Wilson, and MacArthur confer and decide our last best chance is to try to find Faith. MacArthur got some beeps from her collar earlier in the day. We ride a couple more bumpy miles and then hike to a hillside that gives the antennas access to a wide span of territory. Beep, beep. Pause. Weaker beep. The cat is moving. Cooley and MacArthur hike on a little further, down another gully and up the next hill, but come back empty. We won’t see a cougar this trip.
“That’s what’s so exciting,” says Cooley, upbeat by nature. “It’s still rare to see them.” The cats’ reputation for secrecy is well deserved. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the wild has probably passed close to a cougar more than once and not realized it. Fortunately, Cooley and the rest of Wielgus’s team have had enough successful days to collar more than 50 cougars of all ages and gather nearly 50,000 GPS points from them.
They found that in the Selkirk Mountains and the Wedge, where hunting pressure is high, kitten survival is low and adults only average between three and four years old. In the Cle Elum area, with far fewer cougars killed by hunters, the average age is double that, and kitten survival is much higher.
In all three places-and despite the difference in hunting pressure-cougar numbers are mostly staying about the same. The Cle Elum population has a healthy number of adult males, and encounters with humans are rare. The Selkirk and Wedge populations have a lot of young males, who migrated in from nearby regions after older males were shot. Sightings and encounters are much more frequent than at Cle Elum.
“Everyone thinks the population’s exploding [in the Selkirks and the Wedge], but they’re not exploding at all,” says Wielgus. “It’s just that you’ve got more of these young, visible, problematic teenagers.”
Despite his group’s painstaking wor
k and solid findings, some politicians and cougar opponents continue to cite increased encounters as proof the cougar population is expanding. That frustrates Wielgus.
“The science is the science,” he says. “People say, ‘I know that there’s more cougars than ever, because I just know.’ What we’re saying is, there aren’t more now, you’ve just seen more, because you’ve killed all the big guys that kept out these young troublemakers.’
“Look, you have a belief. Fine. Test the belief. That’s what we’re doing now. We have study areas where they’re heavily hunted, and we have areas where they’re virtually not hunted at all. And the interesting thing is, the areas where we aren’t hunting cougars heavily, it’s virtually zero in human complaints.”
He understands the concern over encounters with cougars, but says we need to find a different response than killing more of the big cats.
“Our management actions are achieving the exact reverse of what is desired,” he says. “It’s the shift in the age structure that results in the increased complaints. It’s just disastrous. The heavy hunting that we’re doing in Washington State is causing increased human-cougar conflicts. The putative solution is causing the problem.”
Gallery: Counting cougs – Stalking the wild and elusive cougar in northeastern Washington with graduate student Hilary Cooley. Photos by Robert Hubner
Gallery: Project CAT – In September 2006, photographer Robert Hubner joined graduate students Hilary Cooley and Ben Maletzke on a trip to capture and collar a cougar kitten, with the help of students from the Cle Elum-Roslyn schools’ Project CAT.