Yellowstone Cougar Project

Yellowstone Cougar Project

Why this work matters

The Yellowstone Cougar Project uses remote cameras and GPS tracking to monitor cougar behavior and population to gain a greater understanding of the health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The data from this project helps answer questions about how carnivores compete with each other for territory and prey, and how this predator diversity might affect the entire food chain. In turn, the answers to these questions help the park plan for ongoing ecosystem conservation efforts.

What needs to be done

There are few places left to truly understand how carnivores coexist, compete, interact, and impact their ecosystem. To continue this vital project, the Yellowstone Cougar Project uses the following methods:

  • Accelerometer collars
  • Radio telemetry tracking
  • Aerial monitoring flights
  • Genetic testing and lab analysis
  • Predation studies
  • Population counts and pup survival counts

The Yellowstone Cougar Project relies on donations from Yellowstone Forever’s members and corporate partners to supply the technology needed to complete this crucial research and fund the project.

What we’ve accomplished

Cougars, along with wolves, were killed throughout the U.S. as part of predator removal campaigns in the early 1900s. Cougars were likely eliminated from the park, but the species overall survived in the West. Working in their favor were the large cat’s secretive nature and preference for rocky territory where they are difficult to track. Sometime in the 1980s, the survivors re-established themselves in the northern part of Yellowstone and nearby areas.

With cougars back in the park, Yellowstone returned to being a nearly complete ecosystem in 1995 with the reintroduction of wolves. All of Yellowstone’s historic predators were intact.

The first cougar studies after the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone estimated there were 26–42 cougars in the park. Getting to this estimate was difficult. Biologists relied on radio-collaring a large proportion of individuals (>75% of known population) to estimate population size. Tracking and collaring one of the most elusive predators proved to be difficult and costly.

In 2014, a new study began which seeks to estimate population abundance in the same region using noninvasive genetic-survey methods. Integrating snow-tracking surveys, DNA samples collected from hair, scat, and blood left by cougar, and statistical modeling, biologists estimated cougar abundance from 2014 to 2017. This work determined a healthy population still exists in numbers comparable to those from a decade ago. Biologists estimated between 34 – 42 individuals resided across the northern portion of Yellowstone (all age and sex classes combined).

The genetic samples provide researchers with a window into the lives of cougars. They can determine species and sex, and identify individual animals. From this data, they can estimate abundance, population growth rates, distribution, home range size, individual habitat preferences, and even some forms of social interactions.

In addition to tracking surveys, remote cameras are deployed along established game trails, carcass sites, and common cougar scent mark areas. Remote images and video footage capture exciting and scientifically valuable insights into the lives of these elusive and rarely seen carnivores.

  • Cougar Study field work - Collaring