The aim of this research project is to establish whether the Footprint Identification Technique (FIT), developed by Zoë Jewell and Sky Alibhai (www.wildtrack.org) for several other species, can provide an effective way of discriminating individuals and sex in the mountain lion (Puma concolor).
The mountain lion, also called cougar, puma, panther, and catamount, is a wide-ranging large felid that is known from across the Americas. Mountain lion tracks show 4 toes arranged asymmetrically around a large central pad and no claws.
The idea that animal tracks can be used for individual or sex discrimination is not new; tracking is one of the oldest professions in the history of mankind. However, it is only more recently that attempts have been made to use track information in an objective way (see Jewell et. al. 2001: Alibhai et. al. 2008). Earlier studies by Smallwood & Fitzhugh (1993) and Grigione et.al. (1999) reported limited success in their attempts to discriminate individual mountain lions from their tracks. However, in both these studies, the identities of all the individuals (whose tracks were collected for ‘supervised’ i.e. known individual data sets) were not certain. Moreover, the Grigione et.al. (1999) study included tracks from highly variable substrate types – the nine track sets included in the study came from five different substrate types as described by the authors and their analysis was based on nine measurements derived from the tracks.
In a collaborative effort between WildTrack and Jonah W. Evans, a CyberTracker certified Track & Sign Specialist and Wildlife Diversity Biologist for the Trans Pecos Region, Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept., a project has been established to collect track images from identified individual mountain lions of both sexes to see if effective algorithms can be developed for both individual and sex discrimination. If this proves to be successful, the efficacy of the algorithm will then be tested using tracks form known individuals in a blind trial. If successful, the third stage of this project will be to run a census field trial for a wild population in the Trans Pecos Region, Texas.
Texas is currently the only state in the country with unregulated hunting and trapping of mountain lions. Additionally, there are no requirements for reporting lion take, which makes estimates of lion harvest nearly impossible. Historically, lions were distributed throughout Texas, but through heavy hunting and trapping, they have been functionally extirpated from all but the southern and western portions of the state. Texas Parks and Wildlife is interested in monitoring lions to determine the current status of their populations under continuing unregulated harvest.
The creation of an efficient and effective monitoring methodology for mountain lions has proven to be as elusive as the cats themselves. Numerous methods have been developed and attempted, but as noted in Choate et al (2006), “Despite extensive research there remains no single reliable and cost-effective technique for estimating cougar abundance”. They compared many known techniques and found track surveys to be the most efficient, but they performed poorly as an individual index of population size. If by identifying individual cougars from their footprints a reliable estimate of population size can be ascertained, this method could prove to be the first that’s both reliable and cost-effective.
We now have a robust algorithm for this species constructed on print sets from 37 individuals. The next step is to take this to wild populations and verify the algorithm, prior to using FIT to monitor wild populations.
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation (WRR), Kendalia, Texas.
Estimating populations of Mountain lion in Texas, with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Mountain lions (aka: cougar, puma, etc.) have the largest distribution of any of wild feline, ranging from Canada to southern Chile and Argentina. They are extremely adaptable and are found in a wide variety of habitats. Mountain lions have been extensively researched, however being elusive and difficult to detect in the wild makes accurate population estimates difficult and very expensive to obtain. Researchers have experienced some success estimating some wild cat populations with trail cameras. However, cougars lack the stripe or spot patterns necessary to make this method successful.
Although mountain lions are highly adaptable, they were effectively extirpated from from the eastern half of the United States as a result of unregulated hunting and trapping during the first half of the 1900’s. Today, every state in the US with a functioning mountain lion population has some level of regulation except Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is currently doing research on how best to determine if the current levels of unregulated hunting and trapping are having an adverse effect on cougar population and distribution. With population estimates so difficult to obtain, the FIT method developed by WildTrack appears to be a promising alternative to more invasive and resource intensive traditional methods.
So far, TPWD has provided WildTrack with track photos from 38 captive mountain lions. Preliminary analyses from WildTrack are promising, with a high level of accuracy differentiating cougar trails.
TPWD is now working on collecting tracks from wild cougars to verify the system’s effectiveness in the field. Volunteers in Big Bend National Park have are searching for tracks and we’ve already received some very nice photographs from one individual. The next phase of the project will be a trial field project where cougar populations are estimated using different methods to test the effectiveness of FIT in west Texas environments. The apparent benefits of FIT for TPWD are its low cost and accuracy when compared with other methods. It’s not without some anticipated challenges though. While rocky, mountainous terrain and limited access to private property may prove to be difficult obstacles to overcome, we are optimistic that the FIT method will become a valuable tool for monitoring cougars in the near future.
Jonah Evans, Wildlife Diversity Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department