Searching for Cougars in Dangerous Snow

By Andrew Stratton
Field Technician

Puma in snow

As winter draws to a close in the Northern Hemisphere, join Olympic Cougar Project Technician Andrew Stratton as you learn about the struggles of working in Washington State during this snowy season. But, our team there will do anything to support pumas!

It’s that time of year again. Snow is in the forecast, and the flakes start to fall from the sky. All around me, the Olympic Peninsula’s landscape turns into a wintry wonderland. Heaps of white adorn the tall trees, and wet slush crunches beneath the feet of the animals who make this place their home. Among the snowy setting, cougars slink through the shadows.

When it snows, many people may dread their morning commute on the slick roads. But on the Olympic Cougar Project, we can’t wait to start driving before the plows. This is our capture season, our opportunity to deploy GPS collars on new ghost cats to collect data on their movements for  the coming year. But we must prepare for this undertaking. We spend summers outfitting our trucks with snow and mud tires, chains, winches, tow straps, shovels, sand and safety gear. After this hard work is complete, we are ready to face the challenge of perilous journeys in the cold when the snow falls. 

Snow tire

And the snow comes. We wake up well before dawn, fill our thermoses with coffee and start driving the narrow, steep, snow-covered logging roads to find cougar tracks. We may drive a hundred miles through a foot of snow in a day just to cut a trail. Starting at sea level, we usually find ourselves climbing through the heavy, wet coastal snow. 1000, 2000 feet of elevation we climb — and then we slide. We have to deploy our chains, or we could be in grave danger.  

This danger means nothing to a cougar. They like steep terrain, so that is where we go. The narrow one lane roads of the Olympic Peninsula cut into the sides of steep mountains which drop into dark forests and clearcuts. With many species track patterns embedded in the snow, we must attempt to recognize the zig zagging overstep walk indicative of a cougar as we drive. Usually, things go smoothly, but sometimes, we find ourselves stuck over a ledge.

Snowy road

In 2019, I made an almost perilous rookie mistake. Climbing a ridge, I began to curl into a high drainage. I had found an old cougar track that I was following down the road — but then, the edge got steeper and the road narrowed. I looked for a turnaround. I struggled as I kept driving. The snow crunched under my tires. I was sucked deeper down the road in my search, when all of a sudden, I found myself in the drainage bottom where the snow became considerably deeper all at once.  I stopped knowing I would become stuck only to find it was too late. My wheels spun and dug down to the axle. I was stuck, deep into a mountain road in the domain of pumas, not people. 

This was no time to panic. I was on my own without cell phone service and had to get myself out. I dug the wheels out and shoved debris under the tires. Hopping back in the driver’s seat, I pressed the gas pedal and my wheels spun — no forward movement. I pressed the break and my heart sank; the compression was gone. I got out and my heart sank further. I saw that I had sheared a brake line with the chain I had desperately half-deployed for traction. I was stuck without brakes; driving would be a death sentence on the slick ground. I gazed down the cliff the road was cut into and decided I had no other option — I had to walk out. I gathered a backpack and hiked until I found a bar of LTE. I was able to call our local hound handlers whose trucks were better equipped than mine. They were able to extract me several miles from my truck in the bitter wet cold of coastal Washington’s winters. I had survived the unrelenting snow, at least for now.  

Snowy tree

This has gone both ways now. Last winter, another Technician named Read Barbee and I made it to a hilltop early in the cold night air, and we had no trouble climbing the steep slope. We found a beautiful adult male cougar track line and we called our hound handler to help us trail and tree him. Two hours and a 100-mile drive later, he reached the base of the hill. Then suddenly, over the radio, we heard a worried voice call for help and caution. The warming air had made the coating of snow at the base of the hill as slick as ice, and he was holding hard on his brake to stop a hazardous slide off the drop on the edge of the road. Slowly, we descended the hill, sliding into an uphill road spur next to his precariously perched truck. We got out of our vehicle and deployed our winch and straps, tying his truck to a tree uphill for security. Now, we had to wait for a project partner with the Jamestown Tribe to arrive with additional straps. Once he arrived, we managed to wench our hound handlers’ truck forward until we could fit his chains on for him while he held his brake down. We worked hard. And with teamwork we were able to keep him, the dogs and his truck safe to continue up and capture a magnificent cougar later that day. Once again, we had conquered the snow — for now. 

Puma in tree

Events like this occur every year. The snow comes, and invariably, problems arise. Our vehicles and feet trudge through the snow. The hills and mountains threaten to push our trucks off the road. Snow grows around our tires until we are stuck. Yet, we keep on going. We are on a mission to help increase cougar connectivity in Washington State. And to help cats, our trials in the bleached-white wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula are worth it. 

Learn more about pumas.