Conventional methods for monitoring cougar, Puma concolor, populations involve capture, tagging, and radio-collaring, but these methods are time-consuming, expensive, and logistically challenging. For difficult-to-study species such as cougars, noninvasive genetic sampling (NGS) may be a useful alternative. The ability to identify individuals from samples collected through NGS methods provides many opportunities for developing population-monitoring tools, but the utility of these survey methods is dependent upon collection of samples and accurate genotyping of those samples. In January 2003, we initiated a 3-yr evaluation of NGS methods for cougars using a radio-collared population in Yellowstone National Park (YNP), USA. Our goals were to: 1) determine which DNA collection method, hair snares or snow tracking, provided a better method for obtaining samples for genetic analysis, 2) evaluate reliability of the genetic data derived from hair samples collected in the field, and 3) evaluate the potential of NGS for demographic monitoring of cougar populations. Snow tracking yielded more hair samples and was more cost effective than snagging hair with rub pads. Samples collected from bed sites and natural hair snags (e.g., branch tips, thorn bushes) while snow tracking accurately identified and sexed 22 individuals (9 F, 13 M). The ratio of the count from snow tracking to the count from radio-telemetry was 15:24 in winter 2004,13:12 in 2005, and 22:29 for both years combined. Annual capture probabilities for obtaining DNA from snow tracking varied considerably between years for females (0.42 in 2004 and 0.88 in 2005) but were more consistent for males (0.77 in 2004 and 0.88 in 2005). Our results indicate that snow tracking can be an efficient, reliable NGS method for cougars in YNP and has potential for estimating demographic and genetic parameters of other carnivore populations in similar climates.
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Vol. 75 • No. 3