The Okanagan Conservation Field Crew assisted with the West Okanagan Cougar Inventory this winter. Over the course of two days and armed with sturdy snowshoes, the Crew traversed the Nature Trust of BC’s White Lake Basin Biodiversity Ranch conservation property searching for “Cougar Clues” – signs that a Cougar has been in the area.
The most common Cougar Clues are tracks visible in the snow. While many animals leave tracks in the winter, Cougar prints can be distinguished by studying the shape left by the paws. Cougars and other cats have three lobes on the rear of the heel pad, while wolves and coyotes only have two. Cougars can then be distinguished from other cats by the spacing between the toes, the size of the print, and the stride length. The best places to look for Cougar tracks are along fence lines and near deer tracks, where Cougars are likely to be found stalking their prey.
If recent tracks were discovered, a hound handler would be called to follow the tracks and tree the Cougar using trained dogs, where it could then be remotely sampled with a biopsy dart to collect a small piece of DNA-containing tissue. If the tracks were older, then they would be followed to look for hair samples (clumps of hair snagged on barbed-wire fences and trees).
While the Crew only found coyote and deer prints, it was still a great exercise in conservation research.
Conservation and scientific research go hand-in-hand as the insights from research can inform best management practices, while conservation zones provide unique areas to study wildlife in habitats with less human interference. The Nature Trust of BC partners with universities including BCIT and UBC to provide opportunities for students to conduct research and contribute their knowledge to the management and restoration of conservation properties.
The West Okanagan Cougar Inventory is a joint project between the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) and the University of British Columbia Okanagan’s Southern BC Cougar Project. The goal is to create an inventory of the cougar population in the West Okanagan during the winter of 2021/2022 using a DNA capture-recapture technique. This technique involves collecting hair and tissue samples from as many Cougars as possible within a defined search area and analyzing the DNA to distinguish multiple captures of the same individual. Check out https://bccougarproject.weebly.com/ for more information.