A Landscape Analysis of Cougar Distribution and Abundance in Montana, USA

Research paper by Shawn J. Riley, Richard A. Malecki

Indexed on: 01 Sep '01Published on: 01 Sep '01Published in: Environmental Management


Recent growth in the distribution and abundance of cougars (Puma concolor) throughout western North America has created opportunities, challenges, and problems for wildlife managers and raises questions about what factors affect cougar populations. We present an analysis of factors thought to affect cougar distribution and abundance across the broad geographical scales on which most population management decisions are made. Our objectives were to: (1) identify and evaluate landscape parameters that can be used to predict the capability of habitats to support cougars, and (2) evaluate factors that may account for the recent expansion in cougar numbers. Habitat values based on terrain ruggedness and forested cover explained 73% of the variation in a cougar abundance index. Indices of cougar abundance also were spatially and temporally correlated with ungulate abundance. An increase in the number and total biomass of ungulate prey species is hypothesized to account for recent increases in cougars. Cougar populations in Montana are coping with land development by humans when other components of habitat and prey populations are sufficient. Our analysis provides a better understanding of what may have influenced recent growth in cougar distribution and abundance in Montana and, when combined with insights about stakeholder acceptance capacity, offers a basis for cougar management at broad scales. Long-term conservation of cougars necessitates a better understanding of ecosystem functions that affect prey distribution and abundance, more accurate estimates of cougar populations, and management abilities to integrate these components with human values.