Cougars respond to roads based on human activity, topography, and time of day

New research outlines factors that lead cougars to select habitats near roadways in Alberta.

Katie Willis - 19 October 2020

A new study by University of Alberta biologists identifies three key factors for how cougars select habitats near roadways: traffic, topography, and daylight. 

“Cougars will avoid roads if there is human activity or while there is daylight,” explained Mark Boyce, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife. “However, cougars will select habitat near roadways if there is good cover in terms of vegetation and topography or if the roads are remote.” 

The researchers conducted the study in southwestern Alberta, collecting GPS data from 12 cougars to determine how the animals navigated areas with roadways. The results show that rough topography allows cougars to use areas close to roads, and that the animals are less likely to avoid roads with low traffic or during night hours. 

“Conservation in North America has been remarkably successful at restoring cougars and other large carnivores. Now, we need to learn how to coexist,” said Boyce. “Previous research has shown that road placement and activity on roads can have a large influence on habitats for other animals such as grizzly bears and elk. This study shows that this holds true for cougars as well.” 

The research also has implications for wildlife conservation more broadly. Wildlife managers should consider roadside topography when assessing the potential effects of expanding roadways. 

“And people living in areas with existing cougar populations should use caution,” added Boyce. “Our study shows that rugged topography may provide cougars with a false sense of security that could result in an increased probability of human-cougar encounters.” 

Jeremiah Banfield led this research during his graduate studies under the supervision of Boyce, and is now the elk biologist for the State of Pennsylvania. This research was conducted in collaboration with Alberta Environment and Parks and Parks Canada. Funding for this research was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Shell Canada, and the Alberta Conservation Association.

The paper, “Cougar roadside habitat selection: Incorporating topography and traffic,” was published in Global Ecology and Conservation(doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01186).