Food Habits of Recolonizing Cougars in the Dakotas: Prey Obtained from Prairie and Agricultural Habitats

By Thompson, Daniel J.; Fecske, Dorothy M. et al. | The American Midland Naturalist, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Food Habits of Recolonizing Cougars in the Dakotas: Prey Obtained from Prairie and Agricultural Habitats


Thompson, Daniel J., Fecske, Dorothy M., Jenks, Jonathan A., Jarding, Angela R., The American Midland Naturalist


ABSTRACT.

Food habits of cougars (Puma concolor) in North America have been documented for western populations in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Most studies assessed diets of cougars occupying typical habitats, and within established populations. We evaluated food habits of cougars in prairie and agricultural landscapes in the Dakotas (regions that had been devoid of the species for roughly a century) located well outside of known resident populations. We obtained stomach and gastrointestinal (GI) tracts from 14 cougars (10 male; 4 female) from 2003-2007, and evaluated contents via frequency of occurrence (%) of various prey items. Deer (Odocoileus spp.) had the highest frequency of occurrence (50.0%). Other native mammalian prey included jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii, L. californicus), porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), beaver (Castor canadensis), badger (Taxidea taxus), mink (Mustela vison) and rodent species (e.g., vole). No domestic livestock species were documented as part of the cougar diet in the Dakotas, although remains of domestic housecat (Felis silvestris) were found in GI tracts of two animals. Based on our results, cougars occupying non-typical, newly recolonized habitats were successfully adapting predation techniques for capture of natural and newly confronted prey species. The wide range of prey encountered suggested that prey was being obtained opportunistically in prairie and agricultural landscapes of the Dakotas.

INTRODUCTION

Cougars (Puma concolor) are obligate carnivores that consume deer-sized prey throughout their range in the western hemisphere (Logan and Sweanor, 2000). As such, how cougars meet their dietary needs via regional differences in prey availability, are of interest in understanding the ecology of this large predator. Cougar food habits have been documented in the western United States and Canada (Robinette et al., 1959; Spalding and Lesoski, 1971; Toweill and Meslow, 1977; Anderson, 1983; Ackerman et al., 1984; Koehler and Hornocker, 1991), the south/southwestern United States (Cashman et ai, 1992; Cunningham et al., 1999; Harveson et al., 2000; Logan and Sweanor, 2001), Mexico (Nunez, 2000; Rosas-Rosas et al., 2003) and in southern Florida (Maehr et al., 1990). Although regional differences occur, ungulates, such as mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), white-tailed deer (O. virginianus) , elk (Cervus elaphus) and in certain regions bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), comprise the primary prey in cougar diets in North America.

Much of the information available on cougar food habits and prey availability has been obtained from cougars occupying typical habitats, and within established populations. However, expansion of some western populations during the past 20 y has contributed to the reestablishment of populations in areas where cougars had been extirpated for up to 100 y (Logan and Sweanor, 2000; Cougar Network, 2007; Fecske, 2003; Thompson and Jenks, 2005; North Dakota Game and Fish Department, 2006, 2007). Moreover, verified sightings of the animal have been documented well outside of recently established populations. As cougars recolonize former ranges, it is essential to document prey items encountered while they are navigating new habitats. Our main objective was to document food habits of cougars located outside of the current range and distribution of documented breeding populations in North and South Dakota. Currently, cougars dispersing from the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Little Missouri Badlands of North Dakota are occupying what would be considered atypical cougar habitat (prairies and agricultural lands). Due to large-scale ranching and agricultural presence in these states, we also wanted to document the extent that domestic and livestock species occur in cougar diets.

STUDY AREA

The Black Hills of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming has a viable and expanding cougar population (Fig. 1; Fecske, 2003; Thompson and Jenks, 2005). …

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