Each summer, Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project welcomes a new batch of interns, and this year I’m lucky enough to be one of them. It’s been amazing, but incredibly challenging as well. There are the physical challenges, such as acclimating to the elevation; my first couple of weeks here primarily consisted of me wheezing up mountains, trying to decide if I should be more concerned by my legs giving out beneath me or by the increasingly likely possibility of vomiting on the hillside. Occasionally, a co-worker and I would crest a hill, overwhelmed with the relief of reaching our destination, only to see that bears had destroyed one of our experiments. Fieldwork is nothing if not character building.
There are also intellectual challenges. Walk several meters through the sagebrush with a TCP staff member and you’ll be amazed at how much they notice; they see tracks, hear bird calls, smell animals far in the distance. At first, when they asked me what I noticed, I was stumped—but I’m getting better. If you need someone to tell you the difference between a black and grizzly bear track, I’m your girl.
Challenges aside, the work is incredibly rewarding. Here’s what a normal day looks like:
We usually arrive at the office in Kelly, Wyoming, at 8:30AM and check the schedule. Though it varies daily, our work revolves around visiting puma GPS clusters, or locations where collared pumas have remained in a 150-meter radius for four or more hours. When we arrive at a cluster, we search for either a bed (usually a sunny, dry spot under heavy cover where puma hairs can be found) or a kill (usually a carcass, though assistants identify kills from indicators as scant as a few bone shards. I told you they were impressive!).
Though this is the heart of the TCP’s data collection, we also use camera traps to examine scavengers and competing predators, take soil samples to better understand how carcass decomposition affects soil the land, and collect carrion beetles at kill sites in order to document one of the invertebrate communities that pumas help foster.
We usually get back from the field at around 5PM, exhausted, covered in dried sweat, shoes and socks sopping from a river crossing, hair sticking out in every direction… but feeling deeply content to have contributed to the TCP’s vital work. Basking in that feeling as I cook dinner with a stunning view of the Teton is something I could get used to.