WildTrack is working with Jonah Evans, Mammalogist and CyberTracker certified Track & Sign Specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to develop FIT for monitoring mountain lion throughout this species huge range. We published our results in 2017:
Alibhai S, Jewell Z, Evans J (2017) The challenge of monitoring elusive large carnivores: An accurate and cost-effective tool to identify and sex pumas (Puma concolor) from footprints. PLOS ONE 12(3): e0172065. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172065
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.
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.
Our publication provides 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.