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On the Perceived Threat of Collaring Cougars

Mark Elbroch, Panthera, 2014

Nearly everything we know about some animals, including gray squirrels and pronghorn, we have learned through direct observation in natural settings. Other species are difficult to watch in the wild, because they prefer dawn and dusk to day, structured habitats to wide open spaces, wander vast areas too difficult to monitor, or they stalk prey, so utilize cover and camouflage to make themselves invisible.  Wild felids, cougars among them, do all of these things to avoid our notice. Cougars live in between us like shadows, yet so few of us are lucky enough to see them. Even when someone spots a cougar, it is typically but a glimpse, or it’s beyond the boundaries of its usual wilderness home. 

Most of what we know about cougars is based upon research in which individuals were marked with VHF or GPS collars. GPS technology is an essential and effective tool in studying cryptic species, in revealing their secret lives, and in aiding their conservation. On the one hand, collars provide unique opportunities to gather specific types of data, while on the other, they are unnecessary and even inappropriate for other research questions. Thus, know that Panthera only employs collar technology when necessary and when the means match the conservation questions and strategies for cougars and other species. Please find below, answers to common questions we receive about collaring cougars:

  • What are the benefits of collaring wild cougars?

Because cougars are cryptic top predators expert in camouflage and stalking that wander massive home ranges, GPS collars remain the best tool to collect certain types of data. Location data collected by cougars wearing collars are used to map essential wildlife corridors in need of protection, identify places to build wildlife bridges and culverts to allow cougars and other wildlife to navigate highways, quantify habitat use and spatial dynamics in relation to their habitat, and study foraging ecology. Collars are also essential in quantifying survivorship. As an example, consider the Teton Cougar Project, which has gathered one of the longest datasets on cause-specific mortalities for cougars to date. Should a cougar with a collar die, researchers are able to find the animal and determine the cause of death. This is essential in not just understanding the struggles cougars face, but in creating improved conservation strategies for this species. For instance, because we mark kittens with tiny expandable collars, we know that other predators kill most kittens. Because we mark adult cougars with GPS collars, we can estimate cougar abundance and we know human hunters kill most adult cougars. This information is essential in combating mythology about how many cougars exist on the landscape and the influence of human hunting on cougar populations. It also provides the data needed to modify, and sometimes challenge, current management to ensure greater protection for this species.

  • Are there ethics in capturing and collaring cougars?

Yes. The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (http://www.iacuc.org/) was created to ensure that modern research is both ethical and justifiable in its pursuit of new knowledge. All research is conducted only after being approved by an independent IACUC.  Numerous committees and guidelines also exist to aid researchers in maintaining the highest standard of safety and ethics in capturing and handling wildlife (e.g., the Animal Care and Use Committee of the American Society of Mammalogists, Sikes et al. 2011.) Panthera staff have received training in both chemical immobilization as well as the ethics of wildlife research, and in every capture scenario, the animal’s safety and welfare is the first priority. Panthera staff do everything they can to minimize the stress for the animal (e.g., using blinders so cougars cannot see researchers), and the duration of the capture experience.

  • What is the process during which collars are fitted on cougars?

Cougars are safely anesthetized before they are fitted with a collar. Panthera scientists carefully select the amount and type of drugs for the species and the weight of the cat; capture drugs are selected for their safety and their margin of safety—for instance, you can administer some drugs up to 7x the correct dose without harming the animal. With such a wide margin of safety, giving an animal a 10% larger dose because of inaccurately estimating its weight is still completely safe. Once the drugs have been delivered via dart or hand injection, scientists lay the cougar in a comfortable position and place a blindfold over the cat’s eyes to protect them from light and debris. Covering the animal’s eyes also minimizes stimuli that can stress the animal. Scientists talk in whispers so as not to stimulate the cat further, and monitor the cougar’s temperature, respiration, and blood pressure every 5 minutes to ensure the animal is not responding poorly to the treatment. Scientists assess the animal's health and collect specific data, including the size, weight, sex, and distinguishing characteristics of the cougar. A blood sample is also taken for DNA analysis and to study disease presence in wild cougars. Medication and/or antibiotics are sometimes given if our scientists feel that this would be of benefit to the particular animal. For example, if the cat is burdened with parasites, there are medications that can be given to help. Finally the cougar is fitted with a GPS collar. When the process is complete, scientists reverse the drugs and watch as the animal wakes and walks away on its own.

  • How big is the GPS collar? How tight is the collar?

Collar technology continues to improve and the size and weight of collars continue to decrease. The limiting factor remains battery life, and the most significant portion of every collar is the battery pack needed to power the collar for a reasonable length of time. Our current GPS collars weigh 550-650 g (1.2-1.4 lbs). Old ethical standards state that a collar should not exceed 3% of the animal’s body weight, however at Panthera, we only employ collars that weigh 1-1.5% of an animal’s body weight. 

Determining how tight a collar should be is a balancing act. Obviously, it cannot be so loose as to fit over the cougar’s head and it can’t be so tight as to restrict the animal’s ability to breathe and eat. Other concerns include leaving the collar so loose it catches sticks and debris as the animal stalks through cover, which could injure the animal. As a general rule on cougar captures, we leave 4 fingers of space between the collar and the neck of the animal—meaning we can stick 4 fingers of our hands beneath the collar. In photos, it's difficult to assess how tight a collar really is—it depends on the angle of the camera or how the collar is sitting on the cougar in the moment. Collars in photos typically look much tighter than they truly are.

  • Do GPS collars compromise the cougar’s ability to hunt?

In the wild, we are very certain that collars have little or no effect on a cougar’s ability to hunt. We have seen young females, the smallest of the cats wearing our collars, take adult bull elk (animals weighing six times their size) with no difficulty. We have not found that collars impact a cougar’s stealth and hunting prowess.

  • Do the GPS collars affect the cats’ ability to camouflage?

We have used a variety of collar colors and have found that black is the most effective at maintaining the cats’ camouflage ability.  At present, no one is making a camouflage pattern collar, but it seems that is not necessary.  Most of the cougar’s prey animals have poor color vision, so what may seem obvious to a human is much harder for them to detect, so the collar does little to impact stealth during a hunt.

  • Do the collars stay on for the cats’ entire lifetime?

No. All collars are programmed to drop off after a specified period of time (currently 18-24 months). It is highly beneficial that the collars drop off at a programmed time because it means we do not have to capture the cat a second time to remove the collar, and that we can download any data on the collar that had not been sent successfully via satellite when it was on the cat.

  • Do you use any other methods to gather data about these big cats?

We use many non-intrusive methods to secure data, such as camera trapping, fecal genetics, and snow tracking surveys. In fact in northwest Wyoming, we are currently testing the efficiency and effectiveness of three non-invasive monitoring methods for cougars, which we hope will provide alternatives to capturing and collaring in the future. Know that we do not place collars on cougars (or other felids) without first discussing the type of data we need to collect, and whether there are noninvasive alternatives that we can use instead.

Rest assured, Panthera’s scientists have safely captured hundreds of cats of many species on every continent where cats occur. We place an absolute premium on the safety of cats and we have many decades of collective experience in ensuring that the collaring process meets the highest possible safety standards. By undertaking rigorous science, we hope to ensure the persistence of all wild felids so that future generations can also treasure them.