Native Prey, Not Landscape Change or Novel Prey, Drive Cougar (Puma concolor) Distribution at a Boreal Forest Range Edge

Millicent Gaston
Andrew Barnas
Rebecca Smith
Sean Murray
Jason Fisher
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Many large carnivores, despite widespread habitat alteration, are rebounding in parts of their former ranges after decades of persecution and exploitation. Cougars (Puma concolor) are apex predator with their remaining northern core range constricted to mountain landscapes and areas of western North America; however, cougar populations have recently started rebounding in several locations across North America, including northward in boreal forest landscapes. A camera-trap survey of multiple landscapes across Alberta, Canada, delineated a range edge; within this region, we deployed an array of 47 camera traps in a random stratified design across a landscape spanning a gradient of anthropogenic development relative to the predicted expansion front. We completed multiple hypotheses in an information-theoretic framework to determine if cougar occurrence is best explained by natural land cover features, anthropogenic development features, or competitor and prey activity. We predicted that anthropogenic development features from resource extraction and invading white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virgianius) explain cougar distribution at this boreal range edge. Counter to our predictions, the relative activity of native prey, predominantly snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), was the best predictor of cougar occurrence at this range edge. Small-bodied prey items are particularly important for female and sub-adult cougars and may support breeding individuals in the northeast boreal forest. Also, counter to our predictions, there was not a strong relationship detected between cougar occurrence and gray wolf (Canis lupus) activity at this range edge. However, further investigation is recommended as the possibility of cougar expansion into areas of the multi-prey boreal system, where wolves have recently been controlled, could have negative consequences for conservation goals in this region (e.g. the recovery of woodland caribou [Rangifer tarandus caribou]). Our study highlights the need to monitor contemporary distributions to inform conservation management objectives as large carnivores recover across North America.