New study sparks concern for cougars on the Olympic Peninsula

Research shows that cougars on the Olympic Peninsula are isolated from other populations in Washington state, which can be problematic for big cats in the long run.

WASHINGTON, USA – A study recently released by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is shedding light on how cougars move across the state and how cougars on the Olympic Peninsula can be cut. cut more off from other populations, which can be problematic for long-term big cats.

A DNA analysis taken from more than 1,900 cougar tissue samples collected over the past 16 years reveals several genetically distinct cougar populations in different parts of the state. The analysis showed that those populations were interspersed, meaning they could reproduce and exchange genetics with different groups.

However, that is not the case with cougars on the Olympic peninsula.

“You’ll find that cougars from the Cascade Range are also making their way to the Selkirk Mountains and you know, cougas in the Blue Mountains are trading with cougas in Oregon and Idaho, and you know, maybe leopards. lions in southwestern Washington are Richard Beausoleil, WDFW wildlife biologist and co-author of the study. “From genetic analysis, it looks like animals can sometimes leave (the Olympic Peninsula) but we don’t see much exchange from outside the peninsula back into the peninsula.”

WDFW Wildlife biologist Lindsay Welfelt, geneticists Katherine Zeller and Claudia Wultsch, and Erin Landguth of the University of Montana co-authored the study.

With data collected by WDFW and DNA analyzed by Zeller and Wultsch, the researchers assigned each distinct cougar population a color, which would allow them to map where the cougars from different populations are mixing. The data will also identify which groups do not appear to be connected to other groups. That gave researchers an idea of ​​whether cougars moved easily or with difficulty based on their location in the state.

“When we look at those patterns and heritability across populations, then we can start to link that to different habitat variables that might constrain that gene flow,” Welfelt said. or create more resistance to movement. “So that’s what this paper really did was try to identify the habitat features that were restricting movement, and then that helped us identify areas where we could need to boost connectivity where it’s really limited, or stay connected where it’s really high.”

Male cougars in particular are known to have extremely wide ranges and can disperse up to 120 miles from their birthplace. Based on the lack of genetic diversity seen on the Olympic Peninsula, the researchers suggest that there are barriers preventing males from other cougar populations from mingling with those on the peninsula, which puts challenge the group’s existence.

If distinct groups of animals are isolated from others, populations may become less genetically diverse, which can make them less resilient to environmental challenges over time.

Dr Mark Elbroch of the Cougar Olympic Project said: “At the start, the lower genetic diversity will make the animal look similar, but it will be less able to adapt and less resistant to change. more change. “So let’s say there’s a fire or an outbreak of disease or anything that disturbs the ecosystem, and the animal’s ability to adapt and weather changes in the environment is built into the genetic code. its transmission. The less genetic diversity you have, the less you can think of it as an animal with fewer options to adapt… they’re just more likely to be affected by sudden change.”

The Olympic Cougar Project is co-led by Panthera, a feral cat conservation nonprofit, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in collaboration with six other Native American tribes. The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe received funding to conduct a small-scale study on cougars in 2017. The tribe contacted Elbroch and asked him to teach them how to research and capture cougars. After research found cougars on the Olympic Peninsula to be more genetically isolated than other groups in Washington state, the group turned its focus to conservation.

The Olympic Cougar Project tracked cougars with a GPS collar to see how they moved around the area. Their readings show that there are two main features that limit cougars’ movement: Portions of Olympic National Park are mostly rock and ice, and Interstate 5.

“The I-5 Corridor is basically just one big wall and cats can’t cross it,” Elbroch said.

With the Columbia River to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, Cougars on the Olympic Peninsula have few options when it comes to leaving the region and, as the study shows, cougars from elsewhere in the state. The state has difficulty in moving. travel there.

“If (male cougars) are faced with the choice of going through I-5 into the peninsula or possibly joining the southern Cascades, they will choose the latter route,” Beausoleil said.

Another big concern is growth and development in the Puget Sound region, where the population is expected to double by 2050. Now is the time to start working on solutions, the researchers say. method of linking cougar populations in Washington state to avoid major consequences for the species in the future. .

Welfelt says that while the cougar population on the Olympic Peninsula is fine for now, “we’re moving toward somewhere we don’t want to be.”

“If there is some interest in preserving some of the existing habitat corridors, now would be the time to start thinking about it,” Beausoleil said.

Beausoleil, Welfelt, and Elbroch pointed to wildlife intersections like those seen on I-90 as a potential solution to linking cougar populations on both sides of I-5. . While that work could take years, several agencies are already looking at solutions for animals isolated by states.

For example, the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group brings together representatives from the Washington State Department of Transportation, WDFW, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Woodland Park Zoo, and the University of Washington, and other organizations to identify wildlife connection opportunities in the state.

“This genetic work comes at the perfect time because here we are all working on this very topic and it only provides evidence of the importance of the work we are doing and the importance of it. It’s important to move quickly because you know these landscapes, Elbroch said. “People are buying up what’s left to buy and if we want to protect the last few links across I-5 that still need bridges and underpasses, we’d better get to work, because ten In a year they will be gone.” New study sparks concern for cougars on the Olympic Peninsula

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