Native American tribes, wild cat conservation groups use tech to help study and save cougars

A cougar on Western Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. (Mark Elbroch / Panthera Photo)

A young cougar is hardwired to leave mom and venture out to establish a new territory. But cougars born on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula have limited options. Interstate 5 runs the length of the state, creating a barrier to the east; Columbia River isolates them from the south; and the ocean hems them in everywhere else.

The big cats are still trying to break out.

One cougar swam a stretch of Puget Sound, reaching an island stepping stone to new stomping grounds, but was shot there and killed. Another cougar touched I-5 with a paw and backtracked. Still another cougar made it across I-5, hunkering down in a small patch of forest between a utility company and mobile home park before retreating back cross the freeway the next evening.

Now a partnership between six Native American tribes and a global wild cat conservation organization hopes to reconnect cougars to the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

The Olympic Cougar Project is using GPS collars, cameras mounted at dozens of spots near highways, and a data integration platform to track the cougars’ movements and identify spots where they are most likely to try crossing I-5 and other major roadways.

The project, which is co-led by Panthera and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, has tech support from EarthRanger, a Seattle-based philanthropic initiative that’s part of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2).

A second effort by the Lower Elwha Klallam and other tribes plans to deploy 450 cameras on the peninsula to generate population estimates for cougars, bobcats, elk, deer, coyote and bears. That project is using AI-powered software from Panthera to automatically recognize the presence of these key species in the images. The study will also incorporate genetic analysis of cougar and bobcat scat to validate the population data.

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Sara Cendejas-Zarelli (left) and Vanessa Castle, scientists from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, set a camera trap on the Olympic Peninsula to monitor cougars. (Panthera Photo)

The researchers are using an arsenal of tech tools to answer crucial questions about the health of wildlife on the Olympic Peninsula, which in turn impacts tribal members and other residents.

“We want to understand all at once how these species might be changing on the landscape,” said Kim Sager-Fradkin, wildlife program manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

“Cougars are one of these species that is connected to so many other forms of life.”

Why the cougar focus in particular? Newly published research by Panthera and others shows that the cougars — which are better known as pumas and mountain lions in other regions of the world — play an essential role in strengthening the resilience and biodiversity of ecosystems.

“Cougars are one of these species that is connected to so many other forms of life, from invertebrates to plants to animals,” said Mark Elbroch, Puma Program director for Panthera.

The cougars, for example, can help control deer population, which benefits overgrazed vegetation and reduces deer-vehicle collisions. The remains of their kills feeds scavengers and insects.

This is “a species that should be prioritized because of the net benefit,” he said.

But there are indications that the peninsula’s cougars are losing their genetic diversity, which could ultimately harm their health and chances of survival.

To expand their territory, the Olympic Cougar Project is working with Washington’s Department of Transportation to explore the idea of building wildlife bridges or tunnels to provide cougars safe migration routes across highways.

The research projects are labor intensive. Cameras and GPS collars provide key information, but researchers are also in the field almost daily collecting additional data about the cougars. That means coordinating gear and 30 people across Panthera and six tribes: Lower Elwha Klallam, the Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Quinault Nation, Makah, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Skokomish tribes.

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Researchers with the Olympic Cougar Project predicted the litter that includes this kitten based on tracking data that suggested a cougar mating. (Angela Ambrosini / Panthera Photo)

At first that work and data input and analysis was being done manually. Then in 2020 EarthRanger reached out to the project, already two years underway, and offered its platform. The system can accept data from 70 different kinds of cameras, GPS tracking collars, satellites and other devices, managing and making sense of it all.

EarthRanger’s unique strength, said Jes Lefcourt, senior conservation technology director for AI2, “is integrating all the different sources of data in one place.”

The Olympic Cougar Project accepted Lefcourt’s offer, and the AI2 program spent months customizing a platform. Tableau also donates its data visualization software to EarthRanger users.

EarthRanger made day-to-day operations and data processing much easier for the cougar researchers, but it did something else that’s arguably even more important.

Before adopting the platform, Panthera played more of an organizing role for the project. Now all of the researchers from the tribes and Panthera have the same opportunity, logging into the platform whenever they’d like, Elbroch said. “You could see the level of enthusiasm go up a notch because it provided access to all the people.”

Mark Elbroch, Panthera Puma Program director, holds a GPS collar that was later fixed to a male cougar known as Omar. (Panthera Photo)

Echoed Sager-Fradkin: “It certainly levels the playing field.”

Worldwide, EarthRanger is being used by more than 200 conservation organizations in 40 countries. The software and tech support are all free. Most of the users are in Africa. (Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft and AI2, was passionate about conservation with a particular interest in elephants.)

In the Pacific Northwest, the technology will help answer the question: “How do we help people and cougars coexist?” Elbroch said. “We know that our work will inform the decision-making process.”

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