Large carnivores capture the imagination; they are charismatic, controversial and draw attention from across lines that separate people and interests. But because of the perceived negative impacts of carnivores on natural and agricultural systems, numerous carnivores are threatened with extinction. The cougar (Puma concolor), in particular, is a cryptic species we know little about. This is the reason we initiated the Teton Cougar Project (TCP)—to study this amazing animal in one of the most intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states, and better understand the critical roles cougars play as part of the larger Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Cougars are not the only large predator in our study area. They share the local forests, valleys, and mountains with wolves, and grizzly and black bears. Our study area offers the fantastic opportunity to study carnivore community ecology, and any interactions between wolves, bears, and cougars—insights into their interactions are critical in developing conservation plans for all 4 species in the study area and beyond.
The TCP was initiated in 2000 by Howard Quigley and Maurice Hornocker in a joint project by the Hornocker Wildlife Institute and Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2003, both Howard and the TCP migrated to Craighead Beringia South, where Howard has since collaborated with Derek Craighead to continue and expand the project. In 2009, Panthera joined the TCP as a formal partner and collaborator (when Howard took leadership of their Jaguar Program), and in 2012, Panthera assumed oversight of the project. Nevertheless, the TCP remains an ongoing collaboration between CBS and Panthera. Over the course of the 12 years of the project, numerous field technicians and biologists have contributed enormously to the effort—tracking cougars is difficult work, yet rewarding in ways we could only have imagined.
Document the characteristics of the local cougar population, including population size, survivorship, causes of mortality, and birth rates; Quantify the influence of re-colonizing wolves and grizzly bears on local cougar demographics;Describe and quantify cougar habitat use, as well as any changes in cougar habitat use related to other large carnivores and new human development that has occurred over the course of the study; Characterize cougar predation on elk, mule deer, and other species over time, and quantify the effects of other large competitive carnivores on cougar kill rates and prey selection; Document and describe cougar social interactions;Compare the viability of multiple methods for non-invasive monitoring of cougars at large scales to quantify their effectiveness and cost-efficiency, including track surveys, camera-trap surveys, and genetic surveys; andCommunicate research findings to state and federal agencies and the general public through annual technical reports, research updates, field trips, and presentations.
Results to Date
The TCP has marked and followed more than 80 individual cougars, documenting their territories, prey selection, and population dynamics. Our approximately 2,300 km2 study area extends from the town of Jackson, WY, to the northern boundary of the Grand Teton National Park, and contains an estimated 12-14 resident, adult cougars. Cougars predominantly prey on elk in our study area, which is not surprising, given the large number of elk living in the area. Nevertheless, in recent years, we’ve documented an increasing shift to mule deer in cougar prey selection.
We utilize cutting-edge satellite-assisted GPS collars to track cougar movements, identify cougar dens, and to monitor kittens from an early age. We have documented incredible behaviors, extended family lineages over time, and a vast amount of data in preparation of revealing the hidden lives of cougars in the Southern Yellowstone Ecosystem through innovative science. We will continue to monitor cougar movements, predation, and the population demography of marked cougars through December, 2013, at which point we will have completed the data collection needed to answer our ongoing objectives, and so much more.
In 2010-2011, the TCP hosted filmmakers and collaborated with National Geographic Television in the creation of a one-hour documentary about cougars. Jesse Newby, a project biologist, also received his M.S. from the University of Montana in 2011, for which he analyzed the dispersal of subadults cougars from our project and several others as well.
Cougar Monitoring Project
In collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), the TCP is testing several non-invasive monitoring programs for cougars. As we enter the final years of studying cougar ecology in the Jackson Hole area, the development of these techniques provides a fitting capstone to a 13-year study, and a lasting contribution to cougar conservation in this system.
Our plan is to see local citizens take over the summer camera monitoring and winter track transects as early as 2014, and to continue monitoring cougars for the future. These results would be invaluable to the WGFD for cougar management and conservation efforts, as well as be an opportunity for local citizens to participate in local conservation.
Howard Quigley, Ph.D., Panthera, remains the Principal Investigator (PI) of the TCP. Mark Elbroch, Ph.D., Panthera, is a Co-PI, and the Project leader running the day-to-day operations of the project, and directing the analysis of the data. Derek Craighead, President of Craighead Beringia South, remains a supportive Co-PI and pilot on the project. Project biologists Patrick Lendrum and Pete Alexander conduct a variety of Teton Cougar Project operations; Pete is in graduate school at Utah State University where he will analyze our non-invasive monitoring data.Boone Smith assists with cougar capture and immobilization. Jake Kay, Anna Kusler and Jenny Fitzgerald are volunteer Interns who contribute immensely to our field efforts. Molly Parrish runs our finances behind the scenes and provides constant logistical support.
Collaborators and cooperators
The Teton Cougar Project works closely with a variety of cooperators, collaborators, and permitting agencies and organizations, including Panthera, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the National Elk Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf Recovery Program for Wyoming, the U.S. Geological Survey, the, Utah State University, and the U.S. Forest Service.
The Teton Cougar Project is funded in part by grants and donations from organizations and individuals interested in the proper management, conservation, and stewardship of wildlife and other natural resources. All donations are tax-deductible. Panthera is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization.