Webinar: The Secret Life of Mountain Lions, with Dr. Mark Elbroch, March 2016
Dr. Mark Elbroch Answers Questions from Webinar Participants
Question: Regarding the trapping - how do you choose the trap side and what kind of traps do you use?
In short, I place traps where I expect a mountain lion to walk! But humor aside, I never discuss trapping techniques in a public forum. Should you be a researcher/trapper working on mountain lions and like to exchange lessons from the field, I’d be happy to engage, privately.
Question: How secure is the GPS host data from hacking, etc,?
Honestly, I don’t know. Its password and account name protected on a secure server…but I’m not a techie so am not sure how secure that really is. I have heard horror stories of poachers hacking into tiger data to locate animals…I’ve never heard of such a thing for mountain lions but who knows what’s possible.
Question: Are you guys also camera trapping for these cats in the same area? or are you specifically looking for info that only the collars can provide?
We have run general grid cameras as well—as a comparative research technique to see if we could determine population numbers without catching mountain loins (although we did photograph cats and other animals, it was a failure in accurately determining mountain lion numbers). We do place our cameras in places we find mountain lion sign (places where they scrape regularly or bed regularly, or tight travel routes along cliff edges, for example)…but most of our remote cameras are placed where collar data has revealed areas important to mountain lions or where they are at that moment.
Question: Have you had any collared animals poached during the study period? How many? How do you tackle those issues?
We had a female poached in 2012. We’ve had one animal poisoned as well. Compared to other areas, poaching is a small problem in northwest Wyoming. Likely because mountain lions are legally hunted in WY for 6 months per year, and when a lion kills a pet or livestock, there is a process in place for the State wildlife agency to remove the lion—so the owner doesn’t need to take up arms against the mountain lion themselves.
Question: How do you know where to put your traps and cameras at a LANDSCAPE level, not just in within a single cat's range? ie with so few cats out there, how do you find a set of tracks or a kill or other clues for where you'll ultimately set the traps & cams?
Ah, it’s a good question and one not easily answered in several lines. I follow mountain lions all the time—I live and breathe mountain lions. It took awhile, but I know where to look for them based on topography and other features. It takes years to get to know a species well enough to predict where they are in a large landscape—and I’ve invested the time to be able to do so with just a handful of species—black bears, lions, elk, bobcats to name a few… but I’m only proficient at a few species. Get yourself a tracking book and start learning sign (footprints, scats, broken twigs, etc)—that’s the beginning, and then start following animals around—you’ll unconsciously learn behavior without even thinking about it. The Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals is filled with useful tips, and was meant to compliment a good tracking field guide.
Question: There were only men in the video.
Not sure which video you are referring to—there were no humans at all in the 6-min Secret Lives of Mountain Lions. But please know that our team is very balanced, at least in the last 4 years. Our current project manager is Michelle Peziol. We currently host 3 female graduate students and a female intern. This summer we have 2 more female interns joining us. (We have 2 male field techs, and 1 male graduate student, and me, a male PI).
Question: Do you have any advice on how a wildlife biology student on the east coast could begin a career in cougar/carnivore biology?
It’s a terribly competitive field and most folks volunteer to get their foot in the door—this is unfair because it makes it especially difficult for those with larger financial responsibilities to get a start. I had to work long nights snowplowing to save cash to volunteer on a few projects… Then references pave the way for future work opportunities. I’ve been luckier than many, because my tracking/trapping skills made me very useful and I snuck into the field as the find-and-catch guy rather than the student trying to become a biologist… that’s another way to go.
Comment: Attend the 2017 Mountain Lion Workshop--it's a great place to meet cat researchers. Also read some of the research to see what universities have research projects.
Indeed. Our project will definitely be represented there. The Mountain Lion Workshop (MLW) will be in Colorado. Ken Logan is the coordinator this upcoming year. The MLW is held every three years.
Question: How much time did it take to create the film and what were your biggest challenges?
Once we started reviewing the footage and writing the script it took about 9 months to complete. Determining the concept and goals, the script content, and review process, I included biologists, writers, and wildlife and environmental advocates. The diversity of experience and background of advisors sometimes presented a challenge, but by including the different perspectives, we were able to create a very beautiful video that reached into the homes and hearts of thousands of new audiences. The other biggest challenges was the time it took to review the mounds of footage Panthera provided and getting the script just right. The good news is in the end every minute we took was worth it. Sharon Negri, Producer, The Secret Life of Mountain Lions
Question: How many collared animals do you have currently?
Question: How many predation deaths, primarily bears?
For kittens less than 6 months, wolves are by far the primary predator. Black bears are second (killed 3 kittens, but all in the same litter). For older kittens, sudadults and adult mountain lions, we’ve documented 1 wolf predation, but more mountain lion-mountain predation. Understand though, these are tiny numbers—here is a blog in which I present more specifics: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/07/intraspecific-killing-among-cougars/
Question: If a cat starves due to an injury by a hunter, is that classified as human or starvation? Any idea if human-caused mortality is compensatory, additive or super-additive?
If we know it is due to injury from a person, we classify it as “human.” Admittedly that can be difficult to do long after the fact, and we may misclassify some causes of death. But as an example, F57 dies of starvation in June 2012. However, she died of starvation because a bullet shattered her left humerus bone…so we classified her death as “human-caused.”
Question: For the kittens in your study area that starved to dearth are those incidents linked to hunter kills of their mothers? Is starvation related to excessive hunting of the mountain lion preys?
Yes and no. We have seen starvation linked to mothers killed by hunters, and natural starvation due to poor mothering or early dispersal. Kitten mortalities due to hunters killing females is a real issue for mountain lions, but one difficult to detect and quantify in the wild. Wyoming Game and Fish Department materials estimate that 18% of kittens might die as a result of losing their mother during legal hunting seasons, but our numbers are about half that in our study area
Question: How do you tag kittens? Isn't the mother around?
We wait patiently for the mother to leave (sometimes for several days) and because she is wearing a collar, we can monitor her from a distance and make sure she is a safe distance away to slip in and handle the kittens without a confrontation. We can process 3 kittens in 20 minutes, and then we depart the area quickly.
Question: I understand you lose a lot of your subjects to hunters and current cougar hunting quotas in most states are crushing the population and leading to more problems b/w cougars and us and our pets. My question is (1) do you specifically speak to these policymakers and (2) if so, what is their reaction? Do they understand the science?
Yes, we lose animals we are following to hunting—one of the original objectives for the Teton Cougar Project was to quantify the effect of hunting on local mountain lion dynamics. We have just completed a massive analysis to look at what is influencing the decline in mountain lions in our study area and are actively communicating those results to managers who coordinate hunting efforts in Wyoming. Its up to us to make sure they understand the science, not up to them (my opinion, of course).
Please realize that losing animals to hunting is not distinctive to our study area, as hunting is the leading cause of death for mountain lions throughout the west except California, where hunting mountain lions is illegal. (I haven’t looked at numbers but I suspect that in many areas the leading cause of death for deer and elk is also human hunting, where it is legal to hunt them). And please realize hunting does not necessarily “crush” populations. Hunting (whether for deer, elk, or mountain lions) is meant to be adaptive and to respond to animal abundances. In a well-managed landscape, when an animal population drops, hunting pressure is reduced to allow it to rebound. Thus, there are 2 reasons why hunting might “crush” a population—1) overhunting because managers are unaware or unwilling to reduce hunting pressure as the population declines, or 2) managers wanted to severely reduce a population in a particular area (think of deer hunting where they are overabundant because of a lack of top predators, or wild pig hunting in California where they are an invasive species that do not belong).
With mountain lions, it can happen that managers do not respond fast enough to aid a declining population (#1 above). This might be due to lack of information about the decline driven my insufficient monitoring of the population (driven by insufficient funds/personnel)—please understand that I’m not implying this is intentional. This is likely the case where we work in northwest Wyoming, for example—the current methods employed to track mountain lion population trends in WY (#human caused deaths per 1000 km2 winter ungulate range) did not capture the mountain lion decline at all, and in fact, because human-caused mortalities have been reduced, were interpreted as a population increase (when in fact the decline in human-caused mortalities was because mountain lions were becoming rare)—bad news for mountain lions.
And yes, in some places (e.g., the Black Hills) managers are actively trying to reduce mountain lion populations through overhunting following political pressures from local people in that region (#2 above) (note I did not say “biological” pressure—the Black Hills hunts are about people not mountain lion biology). I share these examples to provide some perspective—I think the word “crush” may apply in a few cases, but in general is an unfair descriptor for the work of wildlife managers.
That said, overhunting of predators, including mountain lions, is a problem in the US and Canada (and around the world), where we suffer from an old anti-predator culture. This problem is deep—it’s not a problem of hunters, nor even of wildlife mangers—it is a problem that needs to be addressed in such a way that the entire system of wildlife management is changed. This is why I caution people about casting blame without consciously choosing their targets. We’ve a tremendous amount of work to do for top predators in our country—let’s make every effort count.
Question: Awesome camera footage- what's your camera trap set up (ie are they on a 2 x 2km grid, or some other standardized distance from each other)? looks like you bait the cameras- is that correct?
We did 3 summers of grid camera trapping (6x6 km) with baits (fermented blood lure) as a comparison method to see if we could determine the number of cats in our study area without catching them (called a “noninvasive” method). That work is being analyzed and published by Pete Alexander, a MS student at Utah State University under Dr. Eric Gese. Those results should appear any moment. (But the camera surveys were not very successful…)
The video cameras we use are not placed systematically or at random—quite the opposite—they are placed where we expect cats to be or linger, because they’ve been there before. We never bait these cameras (sometimes a mountain lion kill is present, but the cat killed the animal, we didn’t provide it)—the only time a bait might be in front of a camera is because it’s a bait to catch a cat, and then the camera is just a tool to let us know whether a mountain lion has visited the bait, rather than a tool to collect behavioral data.
Question: How many kittens have died from infanticide?
Two out of the 78 we’ve tracked.
Question: Have you noticed mountain lions affected by poisons used to control pests (secondary or tertiary exposure)?
We’ve had one case of rodenticide poisoning.
---- THE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS BELOW WERE POSTED, MAY 1, 2016 ----
Question: I'd like to echo Stymie's comments & questions on the camera traps- are you primarily using Bushnell (or similar) trail cameras? Are the placed based off of the GPS locations and current kill sites?
Yes, our workhorse camera for gathering data is the Bushnell Trophy Cam HD. Yes, primarily off GPS locations. Longer response above…
Question: You have found that cougars are more social than we previously knew… do they tend to interact mostly over carcasses? Do they form any kind of social structure outside of a mother and her kittens? Is this the first time such sociality has been documented?
There have been anecdotes of groups of mountain lions being seen, and often near a carcass—some going back 50 years. We’ve found that about 60% of social interactions occur at food resources—we’re hoping to publish this research soon… Yes, I think there is a structure to mountain lion society, though more subtle than in social carnivores or than in a typical family dynamic—and I think I’ve made some progress in figuring it out. I’m actually working with some folks right now to make sure we’ve done the math right…so answer is forthcoming very soon, I hope. Just want to double check everything before putting anything out there!
Question: What’s the role of human-caused mortality on total mortality (compensatory, additive, super-additive)?
Question: I'm modelling potential habitat for cougars in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Are there any factors or variables that you might recommend incorporating into this assessment that may influence a cougar's selection of habitat?
Prey is likely the most important, but lots of folks have published relevant variables to look at connectivity and/or habitat use. I’m sure I won’t tell you anything you haven’t heard many times before! And not my specialty, to be honest.
Question: How does one become a field biologist for big cats?
Tenacity, persistence, and dreaming big. Then a bit of luck meeting the right people at the right time and bam you are in. That works for some people. Research is an finicky as fashion—I really really wanted to study black bears…I did for awhile and then that door closed. Then I really really wanted to study fishers, but ends up I was on the wrong side of the country. The research fad on fishers moved through New England in a wave, and then was gone, and with it, the big pots of money. Wish I’d realized at the time that a new wave was hitting California, where fishers are still a hot topic today, with funds available for grad students and projects. Oh well, I floated for awhile across various critters, but ended up with mountain lions, and am very happy that I did.
From a question above: It’s a terribly competitive field and most folks volunteer to get their foot in the door—this is unfair because it makes it especially difficult for those with larger financial responsibilities to get a start. I had to work long nights snowplowing to save cash to volunteer on a few projects… Then references pave the way for future work opportunities. I’ve been luckier than many, because my tracking/trapping skills made me very useful and I snuck into the field as the find-and-catch guy rather than the student trying to become a biologist… that’s another way to go. Attend conferences with cat biologists. Volunteer on cat projects. Don’t give up.
Question: Living in California, I’ve heard conflicting perspectives about the conservation status of mountain lions; can you tell me if mountain lions are on a trajectory towards becoming threatened, are they relatively stable, or increasing?
Good question. The answer is it depends upon location. In most of the west, mountain lions are stable—growing in some areas, shrinking in others, all following pressures placed on local populations by human hunters. This is typical of managed populations. In California, where they are protected, the population has clearly grown in recent years. In Florida, their population is tiny and endangered—plenty of information for you on the internet about the Florida panther population and its history. In Latin America, in general, their local population status in any given area is unknown, and suspected to be in decline. Central and South America clearly require much more attention from conservation scientists to figure out how mountain lions are doing there, from where they have been eradicated, where they are rebounding, and where we need to aid their recovery. In fact, Panthera is prioritizing future work on pumas south of our borders for this very reason.
Question: Are there any veterinarians on your field team? If so, what role do they play on a team?
We have a veterinarian who supports us with our DEA permits and obtaining capture drugs. Dr. Maura Connelly joins us in the field for captures as much as she can, and has provided trainings for some of our staff and continues to be a great help. I’ve worked on other projects on which vets played larger roles…it is interesting that biologists and vets sometimes find themselves at odds given their different training and experiences. Perhaps you are aware of this and that’s why you asked the question? I personally know vets who believe that any animal capture should include a vet (and they want $80/hr to be there), and I know biologists that don’t want anything to do with vets and feel they have no role in the field. I support neither of these camps—I believe biologists can be trained to safely capture wild animals and I believe vets can be valuable team members in research and conservation. What’s always important, regardless of the topic, is for folks to be willing to admit their weaknesses and what they don’t know. Biologists and veterinarians have very different training, and they should work together in ways that each utilizes their strengths rather than weaknesses. This could be said for any and every team, of course.
Question: Do wolves track mountain lions or is it just a matter of crossing paths?
We have seen wolves track mountain lions for miles, but I think in general, its random crossing paths that result in negative interactions—a wolf may cross a trail and follow a few hundred meters just to check in on what the cat is up to, but typically follows no further. That’s been my experience here in the Tetons.
Question: Noticed that the four females in you slide weren’t exclusively within the male’s territory. Are the females generally mating with more than one male?
But, yes your observations are accurate—its possible that a female may share range with more than one territorial male, and thus have the opportunity to mate with more than one male. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more and more projects document multiple paternity given the spatial patterns of overlapping males and females typical of mountain lions.
Question: Where is the Mountain Lion Workshop taking place?
Next year, Colorado will be hosting the 12th Mountain Lion Workshop
Question: What’s the relation of the cats?
I expect you are referring to specific cats…but unfortunately I don’t know which ones! There is information published in a few places…here’s a family tree we published several years back—need to update it, but perhaps helps with some of the relationships.
Question: Have you noticed if social media, as well as the videos you have collected, has helped to improve human perceptions of mountain lions?
In all honesty, we do not know….we can only hope. We have begun tracking social media to see whether we might detect positive change. Two graduate students at Antioch Graduate School have been helping so perhaps we’ll be able to answer this the next time somebody asks us. Mark Elbroch
Yes, the feedback from the hundreds of comments, tweets, and our short survey on our website tells us that viewers understanding of mountain lions has improved and so has their perceptions as a result of the video. Below are a few highlights of the results. When Jane Goodall was asked in an interview if the internet can change the way people regard animals, she replied "Hugely, You can now get millions of people on a campaign just by pressing little buttons and get people to sign in and put their name out there." She also went on to say that viral animal videos to have an impact have to get to viewers "heads and hearts." I think we achieved that with The Secret Life Of Mountain Lions. Sharon Negri, Video Producer and Director, WildFutures
Highlights of our website survey results
How effective was the video in revealing the importance of the cougar family to the species long-term survival? Very Effective: 59 Effective: 19 Not Very Effective: 0 No Answer: 1
Did you learn something new about mountain lion behavior? Yes: 65 No: 12
If yes, what did you learn? (Most common responses are summarized below)
Male mountain lions can return for ‘family reunion’
Mothers can adopt orphaned kittens
Change perception of mountain lions as solitary
Their strong familial bonds
The long length of maternal parenting (2 years)
How few kittens survive to adulthood & why
The mountain lions altruism
What did you get out of watching the video? (Most common response)
Inspired to take action
New info about mountain lions
About Mark Elbroch Dr. Mark Elbroch serves as the Lead Scientist for Panthera's Puma Program, based in Kelly, Wyoming. Dr. Elbroch designs current puma research, manages and leads project operations, and directs the analysis of project data gathered in the field. Dr. Elbroch earned his doctoral degree at the University of California - Davis, where his dissertation research focused on puma ecology in Chilean Patagonia. He has contributed to puma research and conservation in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Mexico and Chile, as well as worked as a wildlife consultant across North America, specializing in field inventories, the identification of wildlife corridors, and in supporting capture efforts of diverse species. In 2005, Dr. Elbroch was awarded a Senior Tracker Certificate in Kruger National Park, South Africa by CyberTracker Conservation, after successfully following lions across varied terrain. He is the Initial Evaluator for Cyber Tracker Evaluations in North America, where they have been used to test observer reliability in wildlife research and as an educational tool by nonprofit organizations. In 2015, he was awarded an honorary Master Tracker Certificate for contributions to the field.
Dr. Elbroch is a regular contributor to National Geographic’s CatWatch Blog and has authored and coauthored 10 books on natural history, including two award-winning books on wildlife tracking, Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species, endorsed by The American Society of Mammalogists, and the new Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals. Dr. Elbroch is also a 2011 Switzer Fellow.