How does a cougar cross the Washington highway? Their future may depend on a Reuters response

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© Reuters. Olympic Cougar project members work on GPS necklace replacement at Lila, Wild Puma, near Port Angeles, Washington, USA, December 14, 2021. REUTERS / Stephanie Keith

By Stephanie Keith

OLYMPIC PENINSOLA, Wash. (Reuters) – Howling dogs caught the smell of cougars and took researchers deep into the woods, where steep hills were covered with cedar and ferns dusted with snow.

The dogs chased Lila, an 82-pound (37 kg) cougar whose collar needed a new battery, next to a tree. After being hit by a calming arrow, the groggy cat came down and fell asleep. Tim managed to change her collar, examine Lila, and then inject her with medication to wake her up.

It was part of a one-day work for the Olympic Cougar Project, a partnership between a coalition of Indian tribes, a renowned puma expert, and the Washington Department of Transportation.

The project could lead to the construction of a motorway crossing so that stray puma – also known as mountain lions and puma – can find new breeding grounds, improving the wider environment. The same species of cat walks the terrain from Canada to Tierra del Fuego.

“Without a doubt, mountain lions increase ecosystem health,” said Mark Elbroch, one of the world’s leading cougar experts at Panthers, a wild cat conservation group that is part of the Olympic Cougar project.

When a cougar kills a large mammal like a deer or elk, it cannot eat the whole corpse. On the Olympic Peninsula, the top predator leaves behind a meal for eagles, bald, ravens, crows and other birds; mammals such as bears, weasels, dogs and coyotes; and a number of invertebrates including all species of beetles.

Like bears, cougars extract salmon from rivers, helping to fertilize plant species in forests.

The Lower tribes of Elwha Klallam, Skokomish, Makah, Quinault, Jamestown S’Klallam and Port Gamble S’Klallam on the Olympic Peninsula give their traditional knowledge to the project, along with the modern expertise of wildlife biologists.

“As an indigenous person, we are taught that we have to walk in two worlds, one of our traditional and modern,” said Vanessa Castle, a member of the Lower tribe Elwha Klallam who is working on the project. “I think that changes the way these scientists think about these animals.”

Biologists say big cats on the Olympic Peninsula have less genetic diversity than the rest of Washington state because they are surrounded by Interstate 5 and cut off from natural breeding partners in the Cascade Mountains.

Part of finding where to build a wildlife crossing – a practice used to conserve habitat – involves tracking cougars by putting on GPS collars that provide plenty of useful information. Lilu is among about 60 collars on the peninsula. There is no consensus on the total population of unreachable animals of a wide range.

“The collar gives us information we just couldn’t get in any other way,” said Kim Sager-Fradkin, a wildlife biologist hired by the Lower tribe Elwha Klallam.

Every day, about 100,000 cars travel along I-5, blocking cougars and other wildlife from crossing the other side of the highway.

“It’s probably one of the worst barriers for all species in the state,” said Glen Kalisz, a habitat-connecting biologist with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

In Southern California, transit authorities will soon break through the wildlife crossing of U.S. Highway 101, which is used daily by 350,000 cars, in one of the last remaining areas where there is natural habitat on both sides of the highway.

As with the Washington Project, the goal is to improve the genetic diversity of cougars.

Both the California Crossing and the Washington I-5 project are learning from one of the largest such ventures, along Corridor I-90 north of Washington, which is about halfway through the construction of 26 wildlife crossings along a 15-mile (24-mile) highway.

For a related photo essay see: https://reut.rs/3r19DBf

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