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How collecting poop helps save mountain lions

Mountain lions are elusive beasts, often traveling alone, undetected at night. Their very nature makes them difficult to count.

The scat they leave behind, though, that’s something an obsessive, tail-wagging dog can easily (and inexpensively) find with the right training. Collecting the poop found by those scat-sniffing dogs gives California officials another tool as they embark on a multi-year project to count cougars. 

California has traditionally relied on collaring to track animals, but as scat dogs have become more popular in conservation research, the state with the largest mountain lion habitat is now testing the method for itself. 

If it works out, the dogs could be used to count mountain lions more often to formulate population trends specific to various regions. 

The new data can help the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife better protect the creatures as officials create preservation and development plans, said Justin Dellinger, Fish & Wildlife senior environmental scientist. California’s mountain lion habitat is diverse and preservation plans for one area may not be what’s best for another. 

A mountain lion snarls on a rock  in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California.

A mountain lion snarls on a rock  in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Mono County, California.

Image: courtesy of Justin Dellinger

In the 1980s, officials clocked cougar populations in California at 4,000 to 6,000 individuals. But that was based on a mathematical approximation with little regard for regional diversity.

“We need to ensure they persist,” Dellinger said. “We need to know how many there are first and manage accordingly.”

Mountain lion sightings have made headlines in California in recent years due to the rise in security camera use. Some have been spotted or while others have sadder tales: caught due to ingesting rat poison or dead on a highway after by a car. 

“Now hopefully we have the method where we can pick up a pile of poop, and you can learn all of this different stuff about the animal that deposited it.” 

The state’s plan is to get a minimum count by collaring — which is time intensive, costly, and invasive — and supplement that by collecting scat and sending it off to a geneticist to identify individual cougars. The process is similar to when forensics labs match DNA found at a crime scene to identify suspects, Dellinger said.

Not only can the state decipher how many mountain lions there are in a given area by analyzing the scat they’ve left behind, but geneticists can monitor the animals’ genetic diversity, diet, and health, too. 

For example, the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California are highly inbred, and a geneticist could detect that from their scat.

This California mountain lion is well-camouflaged in its Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain environment.

This California mountain lion is well-camouflaged in its Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain environment.

Image: courtesy of Justin Dellinger

“Now hopefully we have the method where we can pick up a pile of poop, and you can learn all of this different stuff about the animal that deposited it,” Dellinger said. 

Shelter dogs do the sniffing

Rescued shelter dogs are trained to go after scat for six months by rewarding them with a ball when their mission is complete. When they catch the scent, their bodies go rigid, their tails start wagging, and they sit facing their handler at the deposit site, eager for ball time. 

“I think for our dogs, it’s the happiest moment of their lives,” said Jennifer Hartman, research scientist at Conservation Canines, a University of Washington program that’s handling the scat dog work for California. 

The mutts range across various breeds — if they’re obsessed with balls, they make a good candidate. That’s why Winnie, a black lab mix, Duke, a Chihuahua mix with a snaggletooth, and Chester, a Golden Retriever-Chow, all have the same job.  

Winnie, a black lab, after finding mountain lion scat in Plumas National Forest, last year.

Winnie, a black lab, after finding mountain lion scat in Plumas National Forest, last year.

Image: Justin Broderick 

“I hope we’re breaking down conceptions of what a detection dog can be,” Hartman said.

And what they can do. In addition to the mountain lion project, Conservation Canines works with dogs that sniff orca poop from a nautical mile away and mutts that find caterpillars by seeking out their tiny droppings. 

Grid by grid

For the cougar project, research scientists are traversing the state in grids. 

Two spent time last October camping in the Plumas National Forest in Northern California, dividing the area into 12 grids, with each one searched four times. Dogs and handlers followed ridge lines and bobbed through drainage systems stuffed with downed trees for eight hours a day, starting at 5:30 a.m. The team, in general, found roughly 10 possible scat samples a day, but only saw one cougar over an eight-month period.

“They don’t want to be seen,” said Justin Broderick, a Conservation Canines research scientist working on the project, adding that his partner was the lucky one to catch a single glimpse. “You don’t have to see it. We collected a bunch of data off of it and like I said I didn’t see one.”

It could take years to complete the count. Dellinger hopes to finish by 2022 but isn’t holding his breath. 

“It’s such a big state, and we’re talking the most elusive animal in the state,” he said. 

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