DNA will tell: Are cougars in decline or more of a nuisance than ever? Biologists plan to find out via state study

The Wenatchee World
By K.C. Mehaffey, World staff writer

- 12/08/03
TWISP, WA-- Rich Beausoleil had climbed 10 feet up the Douglas fir tree toward the 150-pound cougar when Bryan Smith called out, "Heads up!"
A split second later, whomp -- the big cat fell from the branches above and landed on the green nylon tarp set three feet above the ground to break his fall.
A cougar and bear specialist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Beausoleil was on his way Thursday to free the tranquilized cat from a thick mass of branches when the mountain lion fell down on his own.
The biologist had spent all morning with three Twisp hound hunters -- including Smith, his father, Chuck Smith, Steve Reynaud and their dogs -- finding and tracking the young male, which will be part of a new study to get better population figures of the elusive felines. Once the cat was on the ground, the work began.
They busily weighed him, measured nearly every part of his seven foot, three inch long body from head to tail, including his 1.2-inch canine teeth. They took his pulse rate, breathing rate and temperature. In less than 50 minutes, the foursome also fit and secured a radio collar around his neck, took a tissue sample from the cat's ear for its DNA, slipped an ear tag through the hole, and tattooed the number 21 on the inside of his upper lip.
They worked fast to finish their tasks before he started waking. Several yards away, hounds Sam, Dixie and Jolene were tied to trees, howling with excitement.
"He's a dandy," marveled Chuck Smith, who used to regularly track and tree the big cats before voters banned hound hunting in 1996. "Give that cat two more years and he'll be 180 (pounds)," said Reynaud.
Beausoleil rubbed the cat's belly while waiting for the cougar to regain his senses. "Feel that," he invited. "He's been eating good."
The cougar was the third of 15 that Beausoleil hopes to put radio collars on in Okanogan County this winter as part of a study, in part, to give better population estimates for the big cats.
He's also paying 15 hound hunters $100 for each cougar they're able to track and tree during a 45-day period in two game units in northern Okanogan and Ferry Counties, where many complaints are generated.
Armed with a CO-2 rifle and tissue sample darts, the hunters are gathering DNA that can later be compared with the DNA from cougars killed during a public safety hunt early next year, or those killed with depredation permits after they've been deemed a problem.
If the same cats are showing up, he'll know there aren't that many out there, Beausoleil said.
If they're all different, there's a lot more mountain lions out there than currently thought, he said.
The study could eventually settle the frequent charge that there are too many cougars in Eastern Washington. "Are we over-harvesting, or are we not taking enough?" Beausoleil asked. "Our guys are saying populations are declining. The local folks say, 'No way.'"
Ever since Washington citizens voted to ban hunting cougars with hounds in 1996, controlling the big cats has been a contentious social and political issue. The state Legislature considered repealing the ban, and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission looked at reinstating a pursuit season, when hunters with hounds are allowed to chase but not kill the big cats. Both were rejected.
In the face of citizen complaints, the Commission did start a "public safety removal" system, when hound hunters draw for the chance to hunt a specified number of cougars in areas where the number of complaints warrant it.
Beausoleil said prime habitat can support almost 5 adult mountain lions per 38 square miles. That's enough for 4,100 cougars statewide. But based on population models, biologists believe there are closer to 2,500 cougars, including about 360 cats in North Central Washington, and that their numbers have declined six percent in the last two years, he said.
In a few years, Beausoleil hopes to know just how many big cats are out there.
If successful, he'll expand the study east to Stevens and Pend Oreille counties next year, and then to Chelan and southern Okanogan counties the year after.
He'll also set up rubbing posts with catnip as a lure to gather mountain lion hairs, rendering more DNA samples.
"Over a two or three year period, you can really get a good idea of what's going on out there," he said.
K.C. Mehaffey can be reached at 422-3850, or 997-2512, or by e-mail at mehaffey@wenworld.com

Photos: big, toothy grin: Hound hunters hold a 150-pound cougar near Twisp after it was tranquilized, tattooed and outfitted with a radio collar and ear tags as part of a population study. see story Page A2
State Department of Fish and Wildlife cougar specialist Rich Beausoleil (far right, in black) gets help from hound hunters with measuring a 7-foot, 3-inch cat. From left: Steve Reynaud, Bryan Smith and Chuck Smith and their dogs treed the cat near Twisp on Thursday as part of a cougar population study. / World photos K.C. Mehaffey


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