News & Events

Tracking the Cougar Connection

Author: Lilly Schneider | 02/27/24

Woman standing by tree with claw marks

Sarah Spaeth on a tracking expedition at the Duckabush River. Photo by Robert Tognoli.

“What we can learn from cougars is that we can live together. We need to be respectful of the fact that they play a pivotal role in the landscape. Their health and wellbeing is tied to the health and wellbeing of the entire ecosystem.”

– Sarah Spaeth

The Land Trust is excited to welcome renowned biologist, author, master wildlife tracker, and Puma Program Director Dr. Mark Elbroch, along with his teammates from Panthera’s Olympic Cougar Project, as our featured speakers at our 2024 Conservation Breakfast. The event will be held on March 14 virtually via Zoom.

Sarah Spaeth, Director of Conservation and Strategic Partnerships at the Land Trust, is especially excited. Having worked for Jefferson Land Trust for nearly three decades to help preserve wildlife habitat for the benefit of the animals, plants, and people who share this land, Sarah’s professional and personal interests powerfully intersect with this year’s Conservation Breakfast topic — and have led her to an interesting collaboration with Dr. Elbroch and the Olympic Cougar Project.

Plaster Cast of Prints

Sarah Spaeth made this plaster cast of the side-by-side deer and dog prints seen on the low mobility section of the Valley View Forest loop trail.

“For me, the journey began when I started studying wildlife tracking in 2012,” Sarah explains. “It completely opened my eyes. I had no idea who was actually here, or that you could read the landscape by looking at animal track and sign — the first alphabet that we had to know how to read in order to survive as humans.”

In October 2020, Sarah was recognized as a certified Track and Sign Specialist — one of five women and less than 50 North Americans so certified at the time. To achieve this, she underwent a rigorous evaluation through CyberTracker, an international organization recognized as the gold standard for tracker training and certification across Africa, Europe, and North America.

“Dr. Mark Elbroch was the very first person to bring tracking evaluation and certification skills to the United States, from South Africa,” Sarah says. “He’s a phenomenal researcher, author, biologist, and tracker.”

Dr. Elbroch was awarded a Senior Tracker Certificate by CyberTracker in South Africa after successfully following lions across varied terrain. His certificate was the 17th ever awarded, and the first ever awarded to a non-African individual. He went on to receive an honorary Master Tracker Certificate for significant contributions to the conservation of tracking knowledge and the tracking community.

Headshot of man in ballcap

Dr. Mark Elbroch. Photo courtesy of Dr. Elbroch.

Among the 10 books he’s authored are several field guides to animal tracking which are, says Sarah, considered seminal books in the track and sign world. His 2001 book “Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species” was runner-up for a National Outdoor Book Award. His book “Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species” won a 2003 National Outdoor Book Award, and the second edition won the 2019 “Outdoor Classics” National Outdoor Book Award.

In 2020, he released “The Cougar Conundrum: Sharing the World with a Successful Predator,” in which he outlines how humans and mountain lions can peacefully coexist in close proximity when we ignore uninformed hype and instead arm ourselves with knowledge and common sense. Currently, he is Puma Program Director at Panthera, which is a nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation of the world’s 40 species of wild cats and the ecosystems they inhabit.

Sarah’s first exposure to the Olympic Cougar Project came during her studies at the Wilderness Awareness School (WAS), about 10 years ago. When she began hosting the WAS Tracking Intensive weekend on the Olympic Peninsula, she reached out to Dr. Elbroch, who was then in the process of launching the project, to see if he’d be willing to share his tracking knowledge and experience with her tracking awareness class. He shared all that and more.

“We actually got to witness the process of collaring one of these large cats,” Sarah recalls. “It was amazing to see how they go about this process and how careful they are with the cats, making sure they’re not harmed and are treated with respect.”

A cougar

A cougar. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Elbroch.

By collaring them to track their movements, utilizing a grid of cameras, and employing other technologies, the team is gaining valuable information about the lives of these keystone predators — including which impermeable barriers (such as highways) they encounter.

Sarah continues, “The Olympic Cougar Project team is trying to gain an understanding of cougar movement, specifically the dispersal of these younger cats when they leave their parents, to see if they’re able to get far enough away from their family members to maintain genetic diversity. If they’re not, the question is: what can we do, as people, to ensure they have connected habitat corridors that allow them to travel far enough to maintain this diversity?”

The Olympic Cougar Project’s work is deeply relevant to the work of Jefferson Land Trust, because we work to support wildlife by safeguarding habitat and creating connected habitat corridors to support species movement. In turn, gaining a greater understanding about which animals are using Land Trust nature preserves helps us make informed decisions about managing land and caring for wildlife habitat. We hope to incorporate some of this data into our climate resilience study.

Today, Sarah has continued to collaborate with the Olympic Cougar Project to deepen her understanding of the lands that Jefferson Land Trust protects and cares for. She’s enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about cougars and our local cougar population from Panthera staff members, including the technicians who check on cougar kill sites (places where a cougar has killed some prey) in order to report back on data like the species of the prey, the terrain, signs of secondary scavenging by other animals, and more.

Photo of Sarah Spaeth and tree with bear claw marks. Photo by Jessica Plumb.

Sarah Spaeth admires the bear claw marks on a tree near the Duckabush River. Photo by Jessica Plumb.

Cougars, she says, are some of her best teachers.

“What we can learn from cougars is that we can live together,” she says. “We need to be respectful of the fact that they play a pivotal role in the landscape. Their health and wellbeing is tied to the health and wellbeing of the entire ecosystem.”

Want to learn more? Join us on Zoom for Conservation Breakfast 2024, March 14 from 9:30 – 11:00 am, to hear directly from Dr. Elbroch and his team. There’s no cost to attend, but pre-registration is required, so register today at