PULLMAN, Wash. — “We’re losing her.”
The dying signal from No. 78’s radio collar confirmed Tracy Taylor’s low-toned murmur. No matter what direction she turned the telemetry antenna, the electronic path of the cougar she and fellow assistant Jeff Olmstead tracked threatened to disappear in static. High in the northeast Oregon mountains, after coaxing Taylor and Olmstead off their snowmobiles and into knee-deep snow for a quarter mile, the cat known for getting dogs to chase their own trails succeeded in shaking off her pursuers.
The faint beeps, the soft crunch of Sorrels in snow, the search for cougar signs but not the cougar, was disorienting for one who just came from Pullman. A scant two weeks had passed since the Rose Bowl game that put the town and WSU on the map for more than a month, where Cougars, clad in crimson and gray, could be found everywhere, walking downtown, shopping in grocery stores and wearing permagrins.
This cougar stayed well out of sight and certainly out of range of any camera, ABC or otherwise. And she had weather in her favor. A snowstorm earlier in the week had dumped an extra foot of snow in the mountains, virtually eradicating the trails Taylor and Olmstead made and ensuring a stuck snowmobile for every 1,000 feet of trail-blazing. In a morning and afternoon of stopping and starting, digging out and trudging, the assistants had pinpointed a possible compass reading of No. 78 based on her strongest telemetry signal. They would come back tomorrow to test that.
So ended Day 13 in a straight 25-day sequence Taylor and Olmstead were putting in for WSU graduate student Cathy Nowak. Nowak is tracking eight radio-collared female cougars in the Catherine Creek Wildlife Management Unit near Union, Ore., to study their feeding habits. Nowak and the students look for cougar kills and scat to determine how many deer and elk the cats eat so wildlife managers can make the best decisions based on the predators’ needs.
But the official explanation comes nowhere close to describing the magic of working around the great cats. First, there’s no denying the excitement of catching a glimpse of the elusive cougars on an outing. Taylor, who volunteered for Nowak last January, saw a cat she was tracking her first day on the job.
“We were tracking each other,” she said. “She didn’t even acknowledge my presence. She knew I was there, though. What a way to start a project. I have a lot of respect for (the cougars) because of this.”
“I like their silence and efficiency,” said Olmstead. “They’re at one with their surroundings — they belong in the mountains. They don’t leave a trace, only tracks sometimes. They’re like ghosts in the woods.”
Nowak’s team closely monitors the movements of the female cats for 25 days, or until one cougar has made four kills. The idea is to get as close to the cat as possible without scaring her. A cougar typically stays in the vicinity of its kill until she finishes eating it, usually seven days, then moves to another part of her territory to hunt again. When the cougar has moved, Nowak and her assistants try to find the kill and, once it’s found, attempt to identify the prey species, age, sex and its condition before death. Scat samples are sent back to Pullman for analysis to determine the animal species the cats eat and how much they utilize small prey, or “in-between-snacks,” as Nowak quipped.
Nowak has documented 64 kills in 17 sequences over a year and a half of research, with no domestic animals reported. This is an important finding, she said — cougars are disliked by ranchers because of the perception that they hunt livestock. What they do hunt is mule deer, primarily fawns, and if adult, mostly does. They also hunt elk, but the proportion is lower, 43 deer to 21 elk. In addition, cougars are known to eat coyotes, which do prey on livestock.
Though not analyzed yet, the data has significant implications for wildlife managers dealing with an increasing cougar population across Oregon. Nowak hopes it will offer insight into habitat needs for the cats and influence management approaches to deer and elk populations. And this is only the beginning. Nowak is studying predation rates in female cougars only; male predation is still open to study.