Cougar Map: See how adult males create exclusive territories, and how adolescent males have overlapping territory.
The Large Carnivore Conservation Lab in the Wildlife Program of the School of the Environment (SOE) at Washington State University (WSU) is an academic research unit that conducts field research on the ecology of large carnivores and their prey.
The lab is renowned in the carnivore research and management community for conducting controversial, cutting edge research and management programs. Our research on effects of hunting male carnivores was listed among the top 15 biggest and best ideas ever produced at Washington State University by Washington State Magazine in 2010. The Director was ranked among top 100 researchers at WSU by Office of Grant and Research Development (2010). Total grant awards = $4,978,256.
Our mission is to research and help maintain viable, large carnivore populations and predator – prey communities in the Pacific North West (and wordwide). We specialize on sensitive, threatened, and endangered large mammals and the ecosystems in which they reside. Some typical species that we study include cougars, wolves, lynx, grizzly bears, European brown bears, black bears, and their prey (mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, mountain caribou, and snowshoe hares).
We are a non-profit wildlife research organization that prides itself on rigorous, scientifically based conservation biology. All of our research is designed for publication in peer-reviewed journals (see completed projects). Our research is strongly quantitative - focusing on effects of anthropogenic disturbance (hunting, forestry, etc) on predator and prey population growth & persistence. Our research integrates theoretical and applied population ecology and includes behavioral, habitat, population, and community ecology.
The director of the Lab is Dr. Robert Wielgus – Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology at WSU. The Assistant Director is Dr. Ben Maletzke – Adjunct Professor of Wildlife Ecology at WSU and Carnivore Biologist for WA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW). Grad students and agency (e.g.WDFW, USFW, USFS) biologists comprise the other researchers in the lab.
Two major current research themes include:
- Effects of anthropogenic disturbance (hunting) on behavioral, population, and community ecology of carnivores (grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, wolves) and their prey (mountain caribou, mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk). We identify and devise sustainable hunting programs that allow persistence of both predators and prey.
- Effects of anthropogenic disturbance (forestry, agriculture, suburban & exurban development) on predator – prey systems (grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, lynx, caribou, mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, snowshoe hares). We identify and devise habitat management programs that allow persistence of both predators and prey.
Our most significant contributions to wildlife science and management have been:
- Population Ecology - effects of hunting male carnivores on female habitat use, reproductive success, and population growth.
- Community Ecology – effects of remedial predator hunting on predator/prey dynamics.
- Landscape Ecology – effects of remedial predator hunting on human/predator interactions.
Population Ecology: The first research program has seriously challenged and overturned the accepted “surplus male hypothesis” whereby removal of adult male carnivores is believed to result in increased reproduction and population growth by females because of reduced numbers of competitive or cannibalistic males. Our research indicated that excessive removal of adult male grizzlies and cougars resulted in: 1.) increased numbers of potentially infanticidal, immigrant males, 2.) female avoidance of males and use of food-poor habitats, 3.) reduced reproduction, 4.) increased infanticide, and 5.) female population decline. These findings question the formerly accepted model of compensatory mortality and density dependent food limitation for population growth of carnivores. Previously excessive sport hunting of cougars (in WA, OR & MT) and grizzly bears (in BC & AB) has been reduced to sustainable levels because of our research. A brand new model for “equilibrium management” of cougars was adopted statewide by WA in 2011. In addition, the BC Ministry of Environment has implemented a province-wide system of 6 grizzly bear preserves, and the government of France has reintroduced brown bears in the Pyrenees, in part, because of our research. Our theories, experiments, and management recommendations have since been replicated and confirmed for other species (European brown bears, African lions, and leopards) world-wide.
Community Ecology: predator/prey dynamics. Our second research program focused on effects of expanding white-tailed deer and remedial hunting of predators on predation of native fauna (sensitive mule deer, endangered mountain caribou). This project tested the “apparent competition” and “prey switching” hypotheses - whereby alternate prey increases or decreases predation on secondary prey. Results to-date indicate that 3 of 3 mule deer populations and 1 endangered mountain caribou population was declining because of expanding white-tailed deer and associated cougars. Remedial hunting of male cougars appeared to exacerbate predation on declining secondary prey because of compensatory immigration by infanticidal males and resulting sexual segregation by females with cubs to avoid infanticidal males. Our results refute the “apparent competition” and support the “prey switching” hypothesis of secondary prey declines in these 4 areas. Culling of solitary, territorial male predators actually increased predation on declining secondary prey because of prey switching by females with offspring. This paradigm-changing research could shake the foundations of current predator/prey management.
Landscape Ecology: predator/human interactions. Our third research program focused on effects of remedial cougar hunting to alleviate human complaints and livestock depredations. Our results showed that increasing complaints and depredations were not caused by increasing numbers of cougars. Removal of adult male cougars resulted in compensatory young male immigration and a corresponding change in the cougar sex/age structure. Younger cougars were more likely to inhabit human-occupied areas; and their home range sizes and home range overlaps doubled in heavily hunted areas – resulting in increased encounter probabilities between cougars and humans. Complaints and depredations were 4 and 8 times more frequent in heavily hunted populations. Increased hunting did not correspond with decreased complaints and livestock depredations. Excessive hunting of predators might increase, not decrease, cougar/human interactions, complaints, and depredations. This paradigm-changing research could change how we manage predator/human interactions.
In The News
Washington Shifts Lion Hunting Strategy - Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Predators delight WSU researchers - Capital Press
More study will mean fewer wolf problems - Capital Press
Hound-hunting deal in the works - The Spokesman-Review.
According to an informal poll, Dr. Robert Wielgus's research is one of 15 biggest ideas ever conceived at WSU. Read all about it in Washington State Magazine.