Does hunting regulate cougar populations? A test of the compensatory mortality hypothesis.
Many wildlife species are managed based on the compensatory mortality hypothesis, which predicts that harvest mortality (especially adult male mortality) will trigger density-dependent responses in reproduction, survival, and population growth caused via reduced competition for resources. We tested the compensatory mortality hypothesis on two cougar (Puma concolor) populations in Washington, USA (one heavily hunted and one lightly hunted). We estimated population growth, density, survival, and reproduction to determine the effects of hunting on cougar population demography based on data collected from 2002 to 2007. In the heavily hunted population, the total hunting mortality rate (mean +/- SD) was 0.24 +/- 0.05 (0.35 +/- 0.08 for males, 0.16 +/- 0.05 for females). In the lightly hunted population, the total hunting mortality rate was 0.11 +/- 0.04 (0.16 +/- 0.06 for males, 0.07 +/- 0.05 for females). The compensatory mortality hypothesis predicts that higher mortality will result in higher maternity, kitten survival, reproductive success, and lower natural mortality. We found no differences in rates of maternity or natural mortality between study areas, and kitten survival was lower in the heavily hunted population. We rejected the compensatory mortality hypothesis because vital rates did not compensate for hunting mortality. Heavy harvest corresponded with increased immigration, reduced kitten survival, reduced female population growth, and a younger overall age structure. Light harvest corresponded with increased emigration, higher kitten survival, increased female population growth, and an older overall age structure. Managers should not assume the existence of compensatory mortality when developing harvest prescriptions for cougars.