Introducing the Olympic Cougar Project

By Mark Elbroch
Director, Puma Program

Puma tree.

November 19, 2018

Panthera’s Puma Program has been silent for a while, but we’ve not been idle. We’ve been changing and growing, and we’re launching new projects in both North and South America. Here, we introduce the Olympic Cougar Project. It is a large-scale, multi- national collaborative effort to assess puma (or cougars, as they’re called locally in the Pacific Northwest) connectivity in western Washington State.  

Previous research on the genetic diversity of pumas in Washington State highlighted that cats on the Olympic Peninsula (OP) west and south of Seattle may already be in trouble. They are genetically less diverse than those on the mainland, likely because the OP’s pumas are isolated from mainland populations. Without doubt, the situation is getting worse. 

Female puma

The OP is fast becoming an island. The Interstate-5 (I-5) highway corridor south of Seattle is one of the fastest developing regions on the west coast, and is increasingly severing wildlife connectivity in western Washington.  

South of the OP lies the massive Columbia River, forming a considerable barrier for pumas traveling that direction. Discharging more water than any other river in the northwest, a puma would need to swim about 6 miles to cross the mouth of the river. Pumas who wind their way eastward, closer to I-5, can shrink that crossing to a feasible swim as short as 2/3 of a mile. There are stories of pumas swimming up to a mile, but much of the river south of the OP is 2-6 miles wide. 


West of the OP lies the Pacific Ocean, and to the north the Strait of Juan de Fuca which, at its narrowest point, offers a 15-mile swim to Vancouver Island across shipping lanes full of massive ships and hungry orcas. The bustling Puget Sound sits to the east. Navy shipyards, Seattle ferry traffic, and poisonous trace metals from old industry seeping into the estuary make this area treacherous for any wildlife, pumas included.  

Looking at all the options, the south and the east are still the best possibilities for pumas to immigrate and emigrate from the OP. However, this means navigating increasingly deforested habitats, industry sprawl, neighborhoods, and countless, spidery roads along the I-5 corridor from Tacoma, WA southward to the Oregon border, all of which support rising traffic loads as the area distends to support a swelling human population.  

Certainly to the south, closer to Oregon, that path is much less developed and much easier. However, with time the highway will widen and infrastructure and communities will grow, creating more development along the interstate and a noose for wildlife like pumas, which require large connected landscapes to maintain population health. 

Ultimately, our goal is to map puma connectivity, identify bottlenecks and blockages in wildlife corridors, and work with state developers to ensure I-5 is modified to aid wildlife on the Olympic Peninsula for generations to come. Within this umbrella, we’re also studying puma dispersal, assessing competition between pumas and bobcats, and working with an incredible array of talented scientists to analyze movement and genetic data collected from pumas throughout western Washington.  

Mark Elbroch in the field.

Our core team is composed of people working for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT) and Panthera scientists. LEKT receives funds from the Administration for Native Americans to study pumas and predation as part of building their Seventh Generation Wildlife Management Plan, to guide the Tribe in the sustainable use of natural resources. Tribes are their own nations and govern their own wildlife and territory. 

Kim Sager-Fradkin, Wildlife Program Manager, leads the LEKT team, and I lead the Panthera team. Cameron Macias is the first LEKT tribal member to attend graduate school to study natural resource management, and is analyzing puma and bobcat genetic samples collected in our study, with support from a Panthera Kaplan Graduate Grant. Together, LEKT and Panthera are forging alliances with additional tribal partners and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to share existing datasets and strategically gather additional data to fill knowledge gaps on the OP’s wild cats. 

Male puma

With the Olympic Cougar Project, we’re attempting something bold, something big, and something swift to protect key routes that will maintain and increase connectivity among pumas in western Washington. In the face of industrial development, urban sprawl, and natural hazards, it’s a colossal undertaking, but the results will be rewarding beyond belief. If we succeed, and we will, our work may save untold thousands of cats and other animals long into the future. Join us to support the effort. And stay tuned; there is much more to come from the Olympic Cougar Project.

Learn more about pumas and the threats to the species here!