Date of this Version
Stoner, D.C., M.A. Ditmer, D.L. Mitchell, J.K. Young, and M.L. Wolfe. 2021. Conflict, coexistence, or both? Cougar habitat selection, prey composition, and mortality in a multiple-use landscape. California Fish and Wildlife 107(3):147-172.
Western North America is experiencing remarkable human population growth and land-use change. Irrigation and associated cultivation have led to colonization of urban-wildland interface (UWI) environments by mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), and consequently, cougars (Puma concolor). In the wake of these changes, human-wildlife conflicts have increased in tandem with questions about long-term species conservation. To address these concerns, we fit 79 cougars with radio-telemetry collars in the Oquirrh Mountains near Salt Lake City, Utah (2002–2010). Our goal was to evaluate variation in cougar habitat selection, diet, and cause-specific mortality in a landscape dominated by urban, military, and industrial activities. We used radio-telemetry data in concert with Re-source Selection Functions to address three hypotheses: (1) that cougars would select wildland over UWI land-uses; (2) prey composition would reflect differences in land-use; and (3) mortality would be predominantly human-caused. Cougars largely selected wildland habitats associated with seasonal mule deer presence, but contrary to expectation, they also selected habitats closer to urban and mined areas. Prey composition in the UWI did not differ from wildland habitats. Domestic ungulates represented only 2% of 540 recovered prey items and were found primarily in wildlands. Native ungulates comprised > 90% of the total kill, irrespective of season or land-use, suggesting that use of UWI habitats was linked to mule deer presence. Cougar mortality was disproportionately due to natural causes in wildlands, but individuals that died of human causes in UWI habitats were more likely to be inexperienced hunters, supporting young kittens, or compromised by physical handicaps. In general, presence of mule deer was the key predictor of cougar habitat use, even in this highly disturbed, anthropogenically altered landscape. As such, management designed to reduce conflict and ensure conservation will need to focus on urban deer, land-use planning, and targeted education campaigns to reduce food subsidies.
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