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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

FRIENDS of Desert Wildlife Refuges Program Featured Cougar and Bighorn Sheep Research in the Desert Wildlife National Refuge

Region 1, November 26, 2013
Fascinated audience members watch year-round movements of cougar and bighorn sheep in the Sheep Range
Fascinated audience members watch year-round movements of cougar and bighorn sheep in the Sheep Range - Photo Credit: n/a
David Choate displayed bighorn sheep, cougar, and deer skulls and track casts.
David Choate displayed bighorn sheep, cougar, and deer skulls and track casts. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Bruce Lund

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts ongoing wildlife research to manage for healthy wildlife populations, the general public hardly ever sees or hears about it. Our Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex organization wants to change all that by presenting public programs featuring the fascinating research on the four southern Nevada refuges.

On October 24, at the Nevada State Museum, David Choate captivated over 140 attendees with an illustrated program about his mountain lion field research in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Working for months at a time and enduring snow flattened tents and hot summer camping and hiking, David found that while the huge 2,300 square mile wilderness of the Sheep Range might appear to be quality cougar habitat, it is actually such a harsh environment in terms of food supply that only 3 – 4 cougars were able to persist as permanent residents. During his two year study, David found evidence of a mature female with three young in the south and one canny female in the north end of the range. While the northern female evaded him, David was able to capture and radio collar the southern female and her three young.

Over the next two years, at least two young died from starvation, one being a young male that roamed over 100 miles east into the Grand Canyon and almost all the way back before succumbing. As far as cougar impacts on bighorn sheep go, David’s research showed that deer comprised their primary prey (about 61 percent) with bighorn sheep coming in second (about 29 percent), and supplemented by a variety of small animals and scavenging.

In sum, David’s research shows that cougars successfully live and reproduce in the desert mountain environment of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge – but just barely because environmental factors are at the limits for cougar survivability. David expects considerable variability in cougar survival and reproduction from year to year in response to fluctuations in environmental conditions, with few individuals surviving at any given time.

Bruce Lund is president of Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Contact Info: Harry Konwin, 702-515-5494, harry_konwin@fws.gov