Over the course of the past three years, a Utah State University undergraduate has amassed thousands of images of animals in the Bear River Range in an attempt to track and evaluate the area’s cougar population.

The USU Cougar Project, started by Chicago native Maggie Hallerud, has captured cougar activity — among other things — on game cameras distributed in a nearly 500-square-mile area since 2015.

Now a senior in the College of Natural Resources studying wildlife ecology management, Hallerud said she started the project because of limited data on cougars in the area. The data previously available was primarily harvest numbers reported by sportsmen to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

“They are the apex predator in our region besides humans, and yet we know little about their presence in the valley,” said USU associate professor Daniel MacNulty. “From an academic standpoint we don’t know a lot about the activity in the Bear River Range. Maggie’s work is an effort to fill that gap from the DNR harvest data.”

Hallerud said after people see some of the photos her camera network collects — often only a few hundred yards from a roadway or trail — many want to know where cougars are active and how the cats manage to avoid human encounters.

Hallerud said Wildland Resources researcher David Stoner helped design the sampling area to help determine how the cougars move in the region.

“We wanted to arrange the cameras to capture an unbiased snapshot,” Stoner said. “These large mammals move around a lot, and we are finding them where we would expect them.”

The research area is split into 12 units and spans 480 square miles from Richmond to Hyrum and then east to the Rich County border.

“We’ve had 42 active sites at this point,” Hallerud said. “If a cougar is in that area, we should detect it with how we place the cameras. It is a big area, but for these animals it really isn’t that big.”

Research is conducted in 40-square-mile increments. Researchers will install nine cameras per zone to trap activity during a 30 day period. At the conclusion of a cycle, retrieving the data for evaluation can take the researchers up to two weeks.

Most recently the cameras have captured a cougar in the Blacksmith Fork Canyon area that has a kitten that is estimated to be only a few months old, Hallerud said. After the discovery, Hallerud went back to the area to place another camera in an attempt to monitor what might be a den site.

Although her research won’t give an estimated population, data on cougars observed and changing trends may lay the groundwork for further study.

“The first year, all our cougar hits were overnight, which aligns with the literature that they don’t like us and will avoid us,” Hallerud said. “Last year, we started getting a lot of hits at 3 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Middle of the day, bright sunlight, and we are puzzled by it.”

Some of the sites where the cameras have recorded activity in the afternoon have been “up the hillside” from campgrounds, Hallerud said.

The researchers hope to keep the study going as it helps develop more data about animal movement. Anything moving past the cameras will trigger them, Hallerud said.

Since 2015, Hallerud has amassed over 22,500 photos of not only the targeted cougar, but bobcat, mule deer, moose, elk, coyotes, a mountain goat and skunks.

Even though the cameras are well off the beaten path, Hallerud said, they still sometimes catch human activity.

“If people see the cameras they wave, or they don’t even notice them as they go by,” Hallerud said. “We had someone run past one of the cameras in Dry Canyon at 4:30 in the morning, which was really random.”

Hallerud estimated some of the cougars caught on camera are the size of a German shepherd.

“We are undergrads and really only get out on the weekends to move the cameras,” Hallerud said. “It gets trickier in the winter since they are randomly selected units. If we can’t get out there because of safety conditions, safety comes first.”

Fieldwork is critical for natural resources undergrads as they pursue internships and graduate programs, MacNulty said.

“Our lab is the hills and valleys,” MacNulty said.

Hallerud said the project has turned into a great way to help mentor other undergraduates, since they will often spend upwards of 12 hours in a day hiking to and from the sites to collect the cameras.

As Hallerud prepares to graduate, she is looking at taking a year off before pursuing graduate school with hopes of eventually working in carnivore conservation.

“Larger carnivores are great, I love them, but they get so much attention,” Hallerud said. “They are big, they’re sexy and everyone loves them. I like the little guys that everyone forgets about.”

John Zsiray is a journalist at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jzsiray@hjnews.com. Twitter Ramblings: @zsiray


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