In his laboratory at Furman University’s Townes Science Center, Dr. Travis Perry rummages through a small closet and removes a collar that’s outfitted with a GPS satellite. It’s just one of the many tools the associate biology professor uses to track mountain lions, or cougars.
Perry is the founder and lead researcher for the Furman Cougar Project, a program that aims to “produce research that can be used for the responsible management and conservation of cougars” in New Mexico.
Each summer, from May to August, Perry and a group of undergraduate students travel to Sierra County, N.M., to photograph, track, and study the big cat species. “The primary objective of our research program is to develop cost-effective population estimate techniques and provide local population estimates,” Perry said.
The world’s fourth-largest cat, the mountain lion, has a territory that’s more extensive than any other mammal in the Americas. But the cats, which are also known as pumas and panthers, were almost completely wiped out of eastern and Midwestern states due to habitat loss and hunting, according to Perry.
Today, it’s thought that about 30,000 mountain lions exist in the western United States, and about 100 panthers in Florida. “Except for a very small population in Florida, there are no known groups in the Southeast or east of the Mississippi in all truthfulness,” Perry told the Greenville Journal last year.
New Mexico, on the other hand, is home to at least 3,000 mountain lions, according to a report from the state Department of Game and Fish. That estimate, however, along with other population estimates across the western U.S., are often unreliable, based largely on anecdotal evidence instead of empirical data, according to Perry.
Perry said wildlife agencies and scientists often struggle to calculate accurate population estimates because mountain lions are “extraordinarily stealthy and secretive” and live in rugged habitats. “You won’t see a cougar unless it wants to be seen,” he says.
He added that understanding the size of the state’s mountain lion population is critical for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) and other agencies to properly conserve the species and prevent it from being over-hunted and exploited.
“Population size determines whether or not a species requires legal protection, and how much protection. If it is a game species, population size determines annual quotas, hunt unit areas, seasons, and the sex and age of individuals that can be harvested,” he said.
Mountain lions are classified as a big-game species in New Mexico, according to Perry.
In 1971, the state’s mountain lions became a “protected” species, under the management authority of the NMDGF. The department initiated a four-month regulated hunting season in the southwest corner of the state that same year. It has since expanded the length of the hunting season, the size of the legal hunt areas, and the hunting harvest limits.
“Changes to the management of cougars by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have been quite controversial over the last decade,” Perry said. As of 2016, for instance, hunters can legally trap mountain lions on private lands and about 9 million acres of public trust lands in New Mexico without a permit.
Conservation groups across the country argue that trophy hunting not only reduces the size of mountain lion populations but also disrupts their social structure and leads to a lack of genetic diversity. A 2003 study, for instance, found that killing male mountain lions causes young male lions to look for territory, which can result in the killing of female lions and their young, ultimately reducing population growth.
The Humane Society of America claims that “trophy hunting accounts for more than 80 percent of all human-caused lion mortality annually in New Mexico.”
Between 2005 and 2014, hunters killed 1,782 mountain lions, according to data from the NMDGF. In the 2016 hunting season, the last year data is available, hunters killed 243 mountain lions.
The Humane Society and Animal Protection of New Mexico, a nonprofit, have since filed a federal lawsuit against New Mexico state game commissioners and the director of the NMDGF, claiming that the department’s decision to open a cougar trapping season on public lands jeopardizes endangered species, including Mexican wolves, as well as nursing female lions and their spotted kittens.
Perry said, “The legal directives for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish require that they manage all game species in such a way as to maintain viable populations indefinitely.”
He did, however, acknowledge that the state’s mountain lion population could decline if it were to be mismanaged by wildlife agencies and over-harvested by hunters, and said his team of researchers is working to address the mountain lion population estimates used by the NMDGF to determine harvest levels.
“Our effectiveness in this endeavor depends absolutely on the ability of the state agency, hunters, ranchers, anti-hunters, animal rights advocates, and environmental groups to trust our objectivity as practicing scientists,” Perry said.
Perry added that scientists can accurately measure the density of cougar populations in a small, local area by capturing and marking every individual in a population. That method, however, is “extremely expensive in time and money.”
That’s why Perry and his current graduate student, Tricia Rossettie, a Furman alumna, are developing and testing a hair trap that’s capable of passively collecting genetic samples from the feet of free roaming mountain lions.
“When the cougar steps in it, it closes firmly enough on the foot and ankle to extract hair when the cat easily removes its foot,” Perry said.
Rossettie plans to complete the technique this fall and share it with the NMDGF, which can then use it “to more accurately estimate cougar population size for less money in the future and effect better conservation measures based on those population estimates,” according to Perry.
Meanwhile, Perry and a group of undergraduate students will traverse the mountainous terrain of southern New Mexico this summer to study habitat fragmentation and other ecological factors impacting the state’s mountain lion population.
Students participating in the project learn everything from orienteering to backpacking to statistical analysis, according to Perry. They must also work together to locate, capture, sedate, and outfit mountain lions with GPS collars.
“A primary objective is to engage Furman undergraduates in ecology, conservation, and the scientific process in a meaningful and unforgettable way,” Perry said.
Before capturing and collaring a mountain lion, the student researchers must establish a network of trail cameras across more than 450,000 acres in order to figure out exactly where the big cats travel and how often, according to Perry.
After the team has identified the location of a mountain lion, they capture it with either hounds, large box traps, or foot snares that loop around the paw when triggered. The researchers then shoot the lion with a tranquilizer dart.
Perry noted that all capture methods used by the research team have been approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Society of Mammologists, Furman University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, the NMDGF, and the university’s supervisory veterinarian.
“We are gravely serious about the humane treatment of our study animals,” he said.
Once the mountain lion is immobilized, the researchers quickly get to work weighing, measuring, determining its age and sex, and attaching the GPS collar. After the collar has been attached, the researchers reanimate the mountain lion and observe it for a couple of minutes to ensure it doesn’t suffer any ill effects from the tranquilizer.
Location data is then sent from the collar every two hours over a 12-hour period, which allows the researchers to track the whereabouts and hunting patterns of the mountain lion. A drop-off mechanism releases the collar from around the mountain lion’s neck after a year, so it can be retrieved by the researchers, according to Perry.
Researchers with the Furman Cougar Project have captured about 33 mountain lions since 2008, according to Perry. The corresponding data have been used to study a number of ecological threats, including habitat fragmentation.
Human population growth and development throughout the western U.S. have pushed mountain lions into landscapes with limited prey sources and travel corridors, causing increased conflicts with humans, demographic isolation, and inbreeding.
Roadways, for instance, are an increasing threat to mountain lions across New Mexico, Perry said. “Habitat fragmentation in the west is probably most affected by interstate highways. … Our research program does look at when and how often cougars cross interstates and how this might affect cougar populations,” he said.
In New Mexico alone, more than 50 cougars were killed in vehicle collisions between 2012 and 2016, according to data from the NMDGF. That includes a male mountain lion captured and collared by Perry’s research team at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in 2014.
The 165-pound mountain lion, which was called KM1, was eventually killed by a vehicle on Interstate 40 just east of Albuquerque in the pass between the Sandia and Manzano mountains, according to Perry. “KM1’s untimely death on I-40 certainly supports the hypothesis that interstates create barriers to cougar movement,” he said.
Habitat fragmentation has also increased human encounters with mountain lions across the western U.S., leading landowners and wildlife agencies to kill the big cats to protect domestic livestock or wild ungulates (mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, etc.) from predation and to enforce human safety, according to Perry.
Perry and his research team, however, have found that mountain lions in southwestern New Mexico live close to humans with much less conflict than might be feared. “This knowledge, ideally, would lead to a greater tolerance of these big cats, especially where human development has pushed into their habitat,” Perry said.
He added mountain lion attacks are rare and generally can be avoided if people take the proper precautions, such as avoiding areas with freshly killed animals and not walking outdoors at dusk and dawn, when mountain lions are most active.
In addition to habitat fragmentation, Perry and his students are also studying the diets of mountain lions to determine their impact on ecosystem ecology, including how their impact on deer and elk population size and distribution affects the vegetation and hydrology throughout southwestern New Mexico.
“The presence of a large predator like the mountain lion changes the entire landscape by altering vegetation and changing the community in which other animals live. … And so, one of the ways mountain lions might be having a really big impact on the landscape is by eating smaller predators like coyotes and bobcats that eat smaller mammals like rabbits and rodents,” Perry told Furman University’s news service in 2015.
Perry said mountain lions provide numerous benefits to other wildlife either directly or indirectly. The big cats, for instance, control deer and elk populations, thus preventing overgrazing. A 2009 study conducted by Oregon State University researchers found that mountain lions in Utah’s Zion National Park prevented deer populations from overgrazing fragile riparian systems, leading to more wildflowers, butterflies, cottonwoods, amphibians, cattails, lizards, and narrower stream channels.
Mountain lions can also help maintain the health and viability of deer, elk, and desert bighorn sheep populations by preying on sick individuals. For example, a 2017 study conducted by researchers at Colorado State University found that mountain lions at Rocky Mountain National Park preyed on mule deer infected with chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disease with no cure.
An eight-year study conducted by Perry and his students also found that some mountain lions in southwestern New Mexico prefer older age classes when preying on mule deer, which results in a smaller effect on mule deer population growth.
Additionally, the presence of mountain lions can reduce human injuries and deaths caused by vehicle collisions with deer. Recent research has shown that, in South Dakota, mountain lions reduced vehicle collisions with deer by 9 percent between 2008 and 2012, preventing an estimated 158 collisions and saving residents about $1.1 million annually in counties with established mountain lion populations.
Perry, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Furman in 1992 and later earned a doctorate degree in ecology at the University of New Mexico, started studying mountain lions in 2006, when he decided to take a yearlong academic sabbatical and help a private conservation company to monitor mountain lion predation on desert bighorn sheep in the mountains of southern and central New Mexico.
“From this experience, I gained a practical understanding of the difficulties of cougar management and conservation,” Perry said.
New Mexico’s desert bighorn sheep were nearly wiped out during the 1900s because of habitat loss, mountain lion predation, and diseases introduced by domestic sheep grazing on public lands, according to Perry.
The state, however, placed the sheep on its endangered species list in 1980 and launched a restoration program in which captive sheep were released into a number of mountain ranges throughout southern and central New Mexico.
In 1999, after biologists determined that mountain lion predation was the primary cause of desert bighorn sheep mortality, the New Mexico State Game Commission authorized the NMDGF to preemptively kill up to 34 mountain lions each year in five mountain ranges, including Fra Cristobal.
During his sabbatical, however, Perry set out to develop a nonlethal approach to resolve mountain lion predation on desert bighorn sheep. “Specifically, we wanted to see if tiger or jaguar urine, used as artificial scent marks, would cause cougar to shift their home ranges away from areas of conflict — like desert bighorn sheep ranges,” he said.
Perry ultimately failed to collar enough mountain lions to complete the study, but he returned to Furman in 2007 with another goal in mind.
“I wanted to create a more focused, long-term research program that would provide a unique research experience for undergraduates while contributing in a meaningful way to a pressing conservation issue,” he said. “With this in mind and given my familiarity with New Mexico geography, natural history, and professional contacts, I decided to focus on cougars in New Mexico.”
In 2008, Perry launched the Furman Cougar Project and began recruiting students from the university’s biology department. More than 30 undergraduates have participated in the program since then. Four students — Chambers English, Brandon Holsten, Elena Smart, and Rebecca Bolich — will participate this summer.
As for the future, Perry plans to continue recruiting students and raising funds for the Furman Cougar Project. The program is currently funded by a combination of Perry’s own personal finances, grants, donations, and the Furman Advantage Research Fellowship program, which provides students with summer stipends.