Saturday, 5 February 2011

End of the Cougar Trail

Li & Gary

Gary doing triangulation to identify cougar

  It has been for several years since I promised to visit wild cat biologist Dr. Gary K on his cougar research project. I was finally able to spot a window of time to do so this winter season, and before his scheduled departure from this project. All was prepared in very short notice and I arrived in the town of Wenatchee in the middle of Washington State after a long journey. It was another four hours' drive before Gary and I reached Tucanon in the Blue Mountains in the South Eastern Part of the State, where he had been working for the past three years.

Dallas & his hounds

With Dallas the houndsman

Cougar skull
   For about 15 years Gary has devoted most part of his time on cougar research, in order to understand their biological behaviour such as home range and life span etc. The method he employs is to find the cougar and tree the cat up a tree with trained hounds. Once in the tree he would dart the cat to anesthetize her but would only give her just enough doze to let her become relaxed, but not so much that she falls asleep completely (to prevent her from falling off the tree endangering her life). When the cat starts to doze off, he would put a net at the base of the tree for safety and then climb up to tie her feet with ropes before adding an extra dosage of drug to put her completely to sleep. Afterwards the cat would be carefully lowered to the ground.

Wind farm
 However, it is a challenge to find the cougar. Well camouflaged and extremely agile, it would be even hard to notice her lying just a few feet away in the grass. So the operation would take place in winter when paw prints are visible in the snow. After fresh cougar paw prints are identified, hounds are released to follow the scent of the cougar till the cougar is tracked down. In her defense, the cougar would normally climb a tree.

Hounds working
But there was little snow left when I arrived on Jan 23rd. Upon entering Tucanon Valley, we started to hear the radio signals coming from one of the collared cougars - Cumina. Gary said excitedly that she sounded so close and if she remained in this location the next day, we should re-catch her and re-collar her with a new more advanced and accurate satellite collar.

All the collars had two functions: GPS and VHF. The GPS function sends location data every 4 hours, and one can see the movement of the animal on a satellite map, which is good for understanding its movement patterns. VHF function emits high frequency radio signals that a handheld receiver can detect, and is therefore used to track the animal.

In the next few days, I got to hear repeatedly a number of collared cougars in the valley. Besides Cumina, there were Ms. Woo, Patsy, Lela, Lincoln, Beev, Forest and Marengo. Over the past 3 years, Gary's project had collared about 20 cougars in this valley. Unfortunately some of the collars malfunctioned, some cougars left this area and others died. By now I had heard signals from 8 of the remaining 9 collared cougars. Gary needed to find the remaining unmarked cats in this valley and collar all of them in order to get a full picture of their life and interactions.
15 yr. old Ford acting up

Lacking co-operation from the snow, we had to rely on the noses of the experienced hounds. But it is unreliable as the dogs could be led astray by a cold (old) track which would either waste their energy and our time as they get directed to the wrong direction. Having no other alternatives however, we set out every morning to first listen to the signals of the collared cats, so houndsman Dallas (a retired former Navy engineer volunteering on the Cougar project for past 10 years) would know their approximate locations and would not release the dogs to search for scents in case scent of a collared cat is picked up instead.

Four days went by very quickly and we were only able to hear the radio signals coming out of the marked cougars. Needless to say I had to postpone my return home and do another shift instead. The only promising part was Cumina, the cougaress who seemed to have pitched a den in the beginning section of the valley, suggesting she may have kittens. Triangulation with radio receiver led us repeatedly into an area of dense vegetation. We came as close to her as about 50 meters judging from the strong signal we got. If she continued to stay in the same area when we came back for next shift, Gary said we would capture her to change the collar.

After a few days of break, we headed back to the Blue Mountains. This time we were full of hope, as snow was forecasted. To my great disappointment upon arrival however, the valley ground had no sign of snow!

News came that the satellite collar of the cougaress Marengo had stopped sending signals already as of Jan 22nd. That was strange as we had heard her radio signal very clearly on Jan 23rd. Perhaps the battery was too weak to send satellite signals but still had enough to send radio signals for a couple of more days? This was a setback for Gary's project as they had collected only one year's data from Marengo.

Cougar tracks
Further, Cumina had moved her position by 8 miles down the valley, casting doubt on our prediction that she had baby cougars. My dream of seeing a wild cougar slowly dissipated.

At least it had snowed a bit at upper level in some area of the mountains. Finding two sets of cougar tracks brought me back HOPE again.

The next day was even more promising. In one day, we counted tracks from five cougars in an area, possibly a mother with 2 young babies, one resident male and one male passing through. Of course these were all just educated guesses. I was suitably excited by the possibility of tracking down a cougar. Further, besides cougar tracks, there were also tracks from coyotes, white tailed deer, mule deer, elks and even a couple of wolves. The wolves had most likely moved in from Oregon State. The busy paw print activities most likely come from the facts the predators were following the prey.

Ms. Woo found dead

The next day, before we started hunting for new cougar tracks, we first went in search of the two-year old cougar, Miss Woo, whose collar emitted "mortality" signal the previous morning. We had heard her signals everyday and we all expected it to be just a dropped collar. Never did I expect to find a dead cougar stretched under a tree in the dense vegetation not too far from the road! Miss Woo was in good condition, albeit frozen. She looked healthy, with good amount of body fat. A bit of meat was hanging from the corner of her delicate mouth, probably from the little deer she had hunted and consumed. The possible explanation could be that she choked to death from her food, but we wouldn't know for sure until an autopsy was conducted.

With great sadness Gary carried her body back to his vehicle. Miss Woo was only collared a month ago and with her gone, there was now a larger hole in the data set. To add to this gloomy day, very few new paw prints were found, except one set of large cougar tracks. It was likely a big male and his tracks crossed our vehicle tracks, disappearing into the grassy slope down in the valley, not far from the station where we stayed. The hounds however could not pick up the scent of the tracks, suggesting them to be old, most likely made the day before after we left the area. We had to abandon the effort.

Carrying Ms. Woo to the truck

My only hope now was on Cumina. Miraculously she returned to the same area we found her in the previous week. We spent a good part of an afternoon doing triangulation with the radio signal receiver and finally determined that the cat must be inside that dense vegetation mid-hill in the drainage.

The slope was steep and it would not work to send the hounds from the bottom. Further, it re-enforced our prediction that she had babies, with whom we must be very cautious as the hounds could kill the kittens. We also investigated from top of that hill, which made it look even more difficult to operate. Even if the dogs treed Cumina into a tree, the area she was mostly likely to escape in at the foot of the hills was fronted by a small but steep and icy river, leaving us no room to work even if we managed to cross the river using one of the old fallen trees.

I have never been successful in my first trip to see a particular cat such as leopards and jaguars. I fully expected this was the case with the cougars. My cougar filming project ended here but I fully expect to have better luck the second time round.