Cougar Project Team vital to decade-long research effort
By Ann McCreary
Jumping out of bed on freezing winter nights, heading out on snowmobiles into the Methow Valley backcountry, traversing miles of tough terrain on snowshoes – members of the Okanogan Cougar Project Team say they’ve loved every minute of it.
For the past 10 winters the Cougar Project Team has tracked and placed radio collars on cougars throughout the Methow Valley, collecting valuable data on the behavior, survival rates and density of cougars that roam the valley.
Four local men on the team, and their cougar-tracking dogs, have logged more than 10,000 hours and thousands of miles volunteering on the research project.
In recognition of their commitment to the project, Chuck Smith, Bryan Smith, Steve Reynaud and Kjell Lester were recently recognized as “Volunteers of the Year” by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in a ceremony in Olympia.
“These guys have been instrumental,” said Rich Beausoleil, leader of the cougar project. “Their contribution to research is so important.”
Beausoleil, WDFW cougar and bear specialist, credits the team members’ toughness and knowledge of the Methow Valley for the success of the cougar research project.
“The Methow Valley is their back yard,” Beausoleil said. “They’ve all been here between 35 and 50 years. They’re all incredible outdoorsmen. And they’re all ‘MacGyvers’ – our snowmobiles break down all the time. You can call them at 2 in the morning, they’ll drop everything they’re doing and be there any time of day or night.”
The team members were compensated for mileage and some equipment costs, but have donated all their time. Chuck Smith, who lives on Benson Creek, began working on the project when it first began 10 years ago. He used to hunt cougars with hounds before the practice was banned in 1996.
Smith knew a lot of other hunters, and he helped put together the volunteer team to assist Beausoleil in his research. For the past 10 years, between November and mid-March, the team has headed out into the snowy hills and forests of the Methow Valley almost every day to track cougars.
Their goal was to tree the cat with hounds, tranquilize it with a dart, collect information about the animal’s health, and fit it with a radio collar that transmits the cougar’s location for the next two years.
Working so closely with the animals and the researchers, Smith said, has given him a very different perspective than the one he had as a hunter.
“Before I started the project I thought I knew a lot about cougars, but I didn’t know anything,” Smith said in a recent interview. “Being able to work with biologists and learn so much about cougars … my opinion of them has changed dramatically. We all respect them.”
Smith said he’s participated in more than 120 captures over the past decade. “You’d think after so many captures it would get old, but it doesn’t,” he said. “To actually get to hold one in your hands, and have them wake up is one of the coolest things. We’ve named every one.”
Kjell Lester of Winthrop shares Smith’s enthusiasm for the work. “Every day is exciting. What I love most is taking the dogs out. They work their hearts out,” Lester said.
“I really enjoy working with the lions. The cats are very mild-mannered, not aggressive like what people hear. It’s so fun to see one up a tree. They’re amazing,” Lester said.
The team put in long days and covered a lot of territory in their work. “We’d be on the snowmobiles by 7 a.m. and it would sometimes be midnight before we got back,” Smith said.
Each team member headed into an area where cougars were likely to be found, and rode 40 to 50 miles looking for signs of the cats. When tracks were found, the rest of the team and their five dogs would convene there, or return the next day, to try to make the capture.
It was the dogs’ job to tree the cat. The team followed on snowmobiles and snowshoes, carrying 30-pound packs loaded with gear and research equipment.
A net was set up below the tree and Beausoleil would shoot the cougar with a tranquilizer dart. In most cases, the cat fell asleep on a branch, and Beausoleil would climb the tree and lower the cat to the ground with ropes. The team would fit the cat with a radio collar and ear tag, take about 25 measurements of the animal, and make sure it recovered from the tranquilizer.
Only about one out of every 12 outings resulted in a capture. And sometimes, after many hours on snowmobiles and snowshoes to tree a cat, the team would decide it was too risky to dart the cougar, either because it was too high in the tree, or because the weather was too cold to safely sedate the cat.
“A lot of times we just walked off,” Smith said. “We didn’t want to endanger the cat or us or the dogs.”
Occasionally, the team has helped track a cat that wildlife officials determined to be a problem because it preyed on livestock or pets. The former cougar hunters found they no longer had the heart to kill the animals they had come to know and care about, Smith said. “If we could get someone else to shoot the cougar, we would,” he added.
The team was always ready to head out when a local resident reported seeing a cougar. Many times, the report turned out to be a bust. “We’d get called out in the middle of the night, only to find it was a dog,” Smith said.
Even after the longest days, the team was still exhilarated from the experience, Beausoleil said. “We’d sit in Chuck’s garage around the fire after being in zero temperatures all day, and we’d talk cougar stuff,” he said. “They like the research, they like the cats, they like running their dogs.”
The Okanogan Cougar Project is one of six cougar research projects conducted in Washington, and is the longest-running project. After 10 winters, the field work on Okanogan Cougar Project ended last March, Beausoleil said.
“This is the most successful cougar project in the state of Washington. We’ve got a lot of good data,” Beausoleil said.
Now, Beausoleil said, he is compiling that data into scientific articles and recommendations that will help guide management of Washington’s cougar population.
Last winter – the final winter of the project in the Methow Valley – was the most successful in terms of the number of cougars captured. With the help of favorable snow and weather conditions – and because “we’re good at what we do,” Beausoleil said – the team caught and placed radio collars on 15 cougars last winter. There are currently a total of 19 cats with collars that report the cougars’ location five times a day, and some will continue transmitting for up to two years, Beausoleil said.
The radio transmissions have provided insights on the territory used by cougars, and especially the density of cougars in the valley. Beausoleil said the data shows that cougar populations are naturally self-controlling, because male cougars are extremely territorial. An adult male cougar will tolerate two or three females in his territory, but will fight to the death to defend his territory against another male cougar, Beausoleil said.
“There’s a balance to these top predators. They can’t overpopulate,” he said.
Beausoleil said the research shows that cougar densities remain constant at 1.5 to 2 cougars for every 100 square kilometers. That figure was the same in six studies conducted in the Methow Valley, Issaquah, Cle Elum, Kettle Falls, Republic and the Blue Mountains.
This information and other data gathered in the studies will be important in guiding wildlife management policies, Beausoleil said.
Although the field research in the Methow Valley is completed, Beausoleil said he expects the cougar research team members to continue sharing what they’ve learned about the big cats.
“I know they’re going to continue to be ambassadors and educators. They’re so courteous and capable. People will call these guys and say, ‘Do I need to be afraid of a cat that walks over the property at 2 a.m.?’ If you call me and say, ‘There’s a cat under my porch,’ they’re the go-to guys for enforcement officers, for me.”
Photo courtesy of Chuck Smith: Okanogan Cougar Project Team members Kjell Lester, Bryan Smith, Steve Reynaud and Chuck Smith (left to right) were recently honored for their contributions to cougar research in the Methow Valley. They are holding a tranquilized six-year-old male the team named “Charlie.”