Sink populations in carnivore management: cougar demography and immigration in a hunted population

Ecol Appl. 2008 Jun;18(4):1028-37. doi: 10.1890/07-0352.1.


Carnivores are widely hunted for both sport and population control, especially where they conflict with human interests. It is widely believed that sport hunting is effective in reducing carnivore populations and related human-carnivore conflicts, while maintaining viable populations. However, the way in which carnivore populations respond to harvest can vary greatly depending on their social structure, reproductive strategies, and dispersal patterns. For example, hunted cougar (Puma concolor) populations have shown a great degree of resiliency. Although hunting cougars on a broad geographic scale (> 2000 km2) has reduced densities, hunting of smaller areas (i.e., game management units, < 1000 km2), could conceivably fail because of increased immigration from adjacent source areas. We monitored a heavily hunted population from 2001 to 2006 to test for the effects of hunting at a small scale (< 1000 km2) and to gauge whether population control was achieved (lambda < or = 1.0) or if hunting losses were negated by increased immigration allowing the population to remain stable or increase (lambda > or = 1.0). The observed growth rate of 1.00 was significantly higher than our predicted survival/fecundity growth rates (using a Leslie matrix) of 0.89 (deterministic) and 0.84 (stochastic), with the difference representing an 11-16% annual immigration rate. We observed no decline in density of the total population or the adult population, but a significant decrease in the average age of independent males. We found that the male component of the population was increasing (observed male population growth rate, lambda(OM) = 1.09), masking a decrease in the female component (lambda(OF) = 0.91). Our data support the compensatory immigration sink hypothesis; cougar removal in small game management areas (< 1000 km2) increased immigration and recruitment of younger animals from adjacent areas, resulting in little or no reduction in local cougar densities and a shift in population structure toward younger animals. Hunting in high-quality habitats may create an attractive sink, leading to misinterpretation of population trends and masking population declines in the sink and surrounding source areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Geography
  • Male
  • Population Density
  • Population Dynamics
  • Puma*
  • Reproduction
  • Sex Factors
  • Washington