Tracking Cougars

The Big Picture

The cougar population on the northern Great Plains was almost completely wiped out by the early 1900s. Today cougars have successfully recolonized the region around American Prairie Reserve. Large carnivores, like cougars, are critical to maintaining stability in prairie ecosystems. Cougars prey on deer and elk, and this predation ripples through the ecosystem. The natural hunting behaviors of cougars, however, can conflict with humans in the form of livestock predation, creating a potential challenge to communities whose economies center on livestock grazing and agriculture.

Project to Date

To date, cougars have never been studied in a prairie/breaks and island mountain landscape (the “breaks” are a series of badland areas characterized by rock outcroppings, steep bluffs and grassy plain paralleling the Missouri River). Therefore, the size and distribution of the cougar population in the region, the habitat and prey needs of cougars and the factors influencing the rate and geographic area of cougar expansion are unknown. A study is being carried out by World Wildlife Fund in conjunction with the White Clay, Nakota and Chippewa-Cree communities to learn how restoration of cougar populations may affect the residents, ecology and economies of the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservations. The research of the WWF and the tribal team involves fitting cougars with GPS (global positioning system) radio collars, which track the location of the animals every four hours to assess the cougars’ range, diet, survival and habitat use.

As of May 2010, scientists have collared 6 females and 7 males. After a year, the collars fall off and are retrieved by the scientists to download the data stored within them. WWF has posted Program Officer Dennis Jørgensen’s first-hand account of the collaring along with video footage, podcasts, and photographs. To learn more about this program and to follow the scientists in the field, go to “Lions in the Mountains”.

Next Steps

Preliminary data suggest that recent harvest of cougars is the primary cause of mortality in the project area and may not be sustainable over the long term. Our friends at WWF and its partners are working with the state and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge to expand the study area to determine a sustainable harvest strategy for long-term population viability and effectiveness. To date they have found no significant conflicts with livestock.

The results of this collaborative study will guide future cougar repopulation management and conservation work in the region of American Prairie Reserve to ensure a robust and viable cougar population and a resilient, fully functioning ecosystem. By obtaining information about the size and composition of the landscape needed to conserve cougars, scientists can also define their conservation priorities for many other prairie species that require similar habitat.