Howling dogs picked up the scent of a cougar and led the searchers deep into the forest, where steep hills were covered in cedars and ferns dusted with snow. The dogs chased Lilu, an 82-pound (37 kg) cougar whose collar needed a new battery, up a tree. After being stung by a tranquilizer dart, the groggy cat climbed down and fell asleep. The team was able to exchange their necklace, examine Lilu, and then inject her with a drug to wake her up.
It was part of a day’s work for the Olympic Cougar Project, a partnership between a coalition of Native American tribes, a renowned cougar expert, and the Washington Department of Transportation. The project could lead to placing highway crossings so that stray cougars – also known as pumas and pumas – can find new places to breed, improving the environment at large. The same species of cat roams the land from Canada to Tierra del Fuego.
“Without a doubt, pumas improve the health of ecosystems,” said Mark Elbroch, one of the world’s leading experts on the Panthera Cougar, a wildcat conservation group that is part of the Olympic Cougar Project. When a cougar kills a large mammal like a deer or moose, it cannot eat the entire carcass. In the Olympic Peninsula, the Supreme Predator leaves behind a meal for golden eagles, bald eagles, crows, crows and other birds; mammals such as bears, weasels, bobcats and coyotes; and a range of invertebrates, including all kinds of beetles.
Like bears, cougars catch salmon from rivers, helping to fertilize plant species in the woods. The Lower Elwha Klallam, Skokomish, Makah, Quinault, Jamestown S’Klallam and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes of the Olympic Peninsula bring their traditional knowledge to the project, as well as the modern expertise of wildlife biologists.
“As an indigenous person, we are taught that we have to walk in two worlds, one in our traditional sense and the other in the modern sense,” said Vanessa Castle, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe who works for the project. “I think it changes the way these scientists think about these animals.” Biologists say the big cats on the Olympic Peninsula have less genetic diversity than the rest of Washington state, as they are surrounded by Interstate 5 and cut off from natural breeding partners in the Cascade Mountains.
Part of determining where to build a wildlife passage – a practice used in habitat conservation – is to track cougars by equipping them with GPS collars that provide a wealth of useful data. Lilu is one of some 60 collared cougars on the peninsula. There is no consensus on the total population of elusive and large-scale animals. “The necklace gives us information that we just couldn’t get otherwise,” said Kim Sager-Fradkin, a wildlife biologist hired by the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.
Some 100,000 cars use I-5 each day, preventing cougars and other wildlife from crossing the other side of the freeway. “It’s probably one of the worst obstacles for any species in the state,” said Glen Kalisz, habitat connectivity biologist at the Washington State Department of Transportation.
In Southern California, transit authorities will soon open a wildlife crossing over US Highway 101, used by 350,000 cars per day, in one of the last areas where there is habitat. natural on both sides of the highway. As with the Washington project, the goal is to improve the genetic diversity of cougars.
The California Crossing and Project Washington I-5 both learn lessons from one of the largest companies of its kind, along a corridor of I-90 further north in Washington, which is mid -road of construction of 26 wildlife crossings along 15 miles (24 km) of highway. For a related photo essay, see: https://reut.rs/3r19DBf
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