Mitacs grants extend BCWF’s cougar and mule deer research projects 

Two interrelated research projects sponsored by the B.C. Wildlife Federation have received crucial grants from the federal innovation funding agency, Mitacs. 

The Southern B.C. Cougar project is led by UBC doctoral researcher Siobhan Darlington with a goal to better understand the habitat needs and territoriality of B.C.’s largest wild cats. 

The objectives of the study are to understand the population dynamics and distribution of cougars in B.C., what kinds of habitat they use and when, what they eat and how they select their prey, and how they compete with other predators. 

“We don’t have a cougar management plan in British Columbia and there isn’t a lot of data on cougars themselves,” said Darlington. “That means management decisions for cougars are based on distribution maps for deer and hunter harvest records for cougar, which is quite limited. We need to improve data collection so that cougar management decisions are being made with cougar data.” 

“This round of funding will allow me to look at some questions around the habitat where cougars are killing mule deer specifically, because there’s so much conservation concern around mule deer,” she added.  

“Mule deer are important for First Nations and hunters as well,” she added. “Trying to address the reasons for their decline is part of this project, because we know that cougars are one of their main predators.” 

The study is led by Darlington with supervisors Dr. Adam Ford and Dr. Karen Hodges and wildlife biologists from the Ministry of Forests, in partnership with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.  The Mitacs grant leverages donations from the BCWF and the Abbotsford Fish and Game Club (AFGC). 

“The Abbotsford Fish and Game Club continues to prioritize investing in wildlife management and conservation. By supporting science-based research we are better able to understand the interactions between ungulates and their predators as well as their population dynamics,” said Club Treasurer Ian Baird.

“Predator management is not well understood by the general public and often management decisions are made under political and social pressures in the absence of robust scientific information. This study focuses specifically on cougars and their spatial and seasonal variation in prey choice across the southern interior of B.C.”

“This kind of data can have huge implications in planning of both cougar and ungulate harvest allocations. We understand the limited funds available for this type of research so it is very exciting to use our investment to partner with the BCWF in order to leverage a MITACS fund match whereby the AFGC $25K contribution has created $100K in total funding for this project. The results of this project are also closely related to the ongoing research on the SIMdeer project, of which AFGC is also a supporter.”

The Southern Interior Mule Deer project (SIMdeer) was also granted funding at a crucial moment for project lead Sam Foster, a doctoral researcher at the University of Idaho. 

“Most of the data has already been collected, but before the data can be analyzed, there are many steps that have to occur,” said UIdaho Assistant Professor Matt Falcy, Foster’s PhD advisor. 

“Years of effort has gone into producing the data set and it is only now that we are at the point where we can begin to extract information from it,” he said. “The Mitacs grant is going to allow Sam to make sense of this data.” 

The SIMDeer camera project is focused on gathering evidence to better understand how B.C.’s changing landscapes, and our presence on them, can influence the distribution of mule deer and their interactions with other wildlife species. To address the current knowledge gap, the SIMdeer team has established 250 camera sites across 30,000 km2 of mule deer country in B.C.’s southern Interior.  

Since the summer of 2019, we have collected more than 2.7 million images. This great success is a direct reflection of the hard work and dedication of roughly 325 citizen scientists, many of them BCWF members. About 150 people have put boots on the ground to help maintain camera grids, and another team of 175 citizen scientists is now sorting through the image collection. Photo reviewers apply cutting-edge technology to rapidly sort and label wildlife images. 

Foster’s position as a Canadian studying at an American university could have been a stumbling block to acquiring federal funding.  

“I’m deeply grateful to BCWF for supporting this project and for going above and beyond to negotiate with the Canadian government to set a new precedent for funding students in my unique position,” said Foster. 

Foster had been working as a teaching assistant to keep the bills paid, but the Mitacs Accelerate Grant means that he can devote himself full time to research on his dissertation with sufficient funding to complete his degree. 

“The Mitacs funds will allow me to focus on the job I came here to do, and I am so relieved to be able to do so.” 

Learn more about the Southern Interior Mule Deer Project and the Southern B.C. Cougar Project here.

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