Puma populations of Argentina, and in particular those of La Pampa Province, are not immune to the conservation threats affecting the species worldwide. Along with loss and modification of habitat within the Caldén Forest region, puma populations have been affected by both sport hunting and management culling. In 2007, amid suspicions of illegal trade and movement of cats from rural areas to game park, puma hunting was prohibited province-wide. Given these circumstances, there was a clear need to establish the conservation status of puma populations. This project continued a previous study of the basic ecology of the puma, providing information for the development of management and conservation strategies for this large cat in the Caldén Forest region.
In the first phase of the project, camera traps were used to estimate and compare puma population densities between two management settings, the Luro Park Provincial Reserve (protected area) and La Escondida Game (hunting) Park. Estimates varied depending on how territory size was incorporated into the model, but pumas ranged from 4.19-8.77 per 100 km2 in Luro Park to 0.94-2.01 per 100 km2 in the game park. Taking into account the environmental variables that were also measured, researchers attributed this marked difference to the level of protection at each of the sites.
The next phase of work focused on a more in-depth exploration of puma patterns of distribution and habitat use at two scales, regional and site-specific. Using camera traps for pumas and collecting other relevant data at 45 10×10 km parcels within the two study settings, researchers compared puma habitat selection with plant community composition, landscape type, prey populations and level of anthropogenic disturbance. Results indicated that there was no selection of any of the available habitat types in particular; however, at both the regional and site scale, habitat use was positively correlated with prey (Cervus elaphus, Dolichotis patagonum and Sus scrofa) abundance and negatively correlated with livestock abundance. Puma activity was also positively correlated with habitat heterogeneity (diversity) and hunting activity at the regional and site scales, respectively.
Although puma hunting is currently prohibited in La Pampa Province, these studies reveal the legacy effects of previous intensive hunting pressure and identify some of the factors that influence puma distributions. Given that the puma population continues to be affected by illegal trophy hunting, the hunting of prey species and other land use practices, this information will be critical for wildlife managers and conservationists working to sustain puma populations. ($5,680)