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Source populations in carnivore management: cougar demography and emigration in a lightly hunted population


Hilary S. Cooley, Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-6410, USA.


Wildlife agencies typically attempt to manage carnivore numbers in localized game management units through hunting, and do not always consider the potential influences of immigration and emigration on the outcome of those hunting practices. However, such a closed population structure may not be an appropriate model for management of carnivore populations where immigration and emigration are important population parameters. The closed population hypothesis predicts that high hunting mortality will reduce numbers and densities of carnivores and that low hunting mortality will increase numbers and densities. By contrast, the open population hypothesis predicts that high hunting mortality may not reduce carnivore densities because of compensatory immigration, and low hunting mortality may not result in more carnivores because of compensatory emigration. Previous research supported the open population hypothesis with high immigration rates in a heavily hunted (hunting mortality rate=0.24) cougar population in northern Washington. We test the open population hypothesis and high emigration rates in a lightly hunted (hunting mortality rate=0.11) cougar population in central Washington by monitoring demography from 2002 to 2007. We used a dual sex survival/fecundity Leslie matrix to estimate closed population growth and annual census counts to estimate open population growth. The observed open population growth rate of 0.98 was lower than the closed survival/fecundity growth rates of 1.13 (deterministic) and 1.10 (stochastic), and suggests a 12–15% annual emigration rate. Our data support the open population hypothesis for lightly hunted populations of carnivores. Low hunting mortality did not result in increased numbers and densities of cougars, as commonly believed because of compensatory emigration.