By Marcia Love
With more and more cougar sightings reported in and around Maple Creek in recent years, there is a growing concern among residents of the animal’s presence in the area.
The latest sightings were reported on Sept. 20 and again on Sept. 26 when a cougar was spotted several times around town. On Sept. 21, conservation officers were informed an 18-month-old male cougar was shot by a resident on a property a mile northwest of town.
According to a wildlife expert, sightings like these could become less rare as the population continues to grow and the cats travel further.
“It’s not something that is all that common, but it certainly does happen, and as the population is expanding — and it is and has — it will become more common,” said Dr. Mark Boyce, a University of Alberta professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife.
Two of his students have studied the cougars in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park as part of their thesis. Carl Morrison was the most recent, who published two papers on the topic — one on the animal’s seasonal movements in avoiding human interaction within the park and another on the dispersal of young males.
Boyce noted the cougars showing up in populated areas are almost invariably young males, dispersing from their mother’s home range and seeking out their own territory.
“They’ll move hundreds of kilometres sometimes,” he stated. “These are the ones that end up in towns and agricultural areas and often times places where they’re pretty uncomfortable, I think. They certainly don’t want to be there.”
This happens as they follow river valleys and streams, which can sometimes lead them into an urban setting — like Edmonton. Last month, authorities shot and killed a male cougar in the city’s west end due to concern for public safety.
“A cougar following the river valley would not perhaps realize they were in the middle of a city until they popped up out of the bank and all of a sudden here they are on a thoroughfare,” Boyce explained.
While it is rare to see a cougar in daylight — as was the case when a family on Marsh Street saw one jump from their roof on Sept. 20 late in the afternoon — the professor said they are active during the day. The cat’s appearance in town could also indicate a young, naive animal.
“Those young males are trying to make a living,” Boyce explained. “They’re trying to figure out where they’re going to set up housekeeping after mom kicks them out, and it’s tough because the better habitats are usually occupied by other cougars and males are very territorial, so they could be killed by a male if they wandered into the wrong place.”
According to Boyce, the Cypress Hills have the most dense population of cougars in the country with about 28 living in the small area. They are widely distributed in the Rocky Mountains, but have been making their way further east. The professor said there are at least half a dozen in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, and sightings have been reported in Ontario.
“Cypress Hills’ population is the furthest east population known to be breeding,” Boyce said, noting they are likely breeding in Riding Mountain as well, it just hasn’t been documented.
Opinions vary on whether or not human intervention is needed. There are those who wish to see the animal left to its natural habitat and those who believe there should be action taken to avoid loss of livestock or even potentially human life.
Some are questioning whether the province should develop a season for hunting the animal to keep the numbers down.
In Alberta, cougars may be hunted by those with a resident cougar licence from Nov. 1-30 in designated wildlife management areas, including those surrounding Cypress Hills Provincial Park. This was put in place in 2011, and hunters may harvest one cougar of either sex. No quotas exist for this season. A winter hunting season is open in other specific cougar management areas from Dec. 1 to the end of February, when cougars may be hunted by holders of a resident cougar licence, non-resident cougar licence, or cougar special licence. Quotas vary by area and sex during this season.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment reported it is not looking at a cougar season as the animal is protected.
For now, landowners have the right to shoot a cougar on their land if they deem it is a threat to their livestock or property. They must then report the incident to conservation officers.
Christa Needham is one of several ranchers in the area wondering why there isn’t a hunting season in Saskatchewan for the cat.
A year ago, she and her husband Slim had a young cougar shot right in the yard at their ranch five miles southwest of Maple Creek. Their dogs had treed the animal when it came into the yard. The tree was right above their then-three-year-old son Colt’s sandbox. She immediately reported the kill to conservation officers.
“They need to get licenses out,” she said. “We’re waiting for a kid, a horse, something’s going down.”
While the Needhams haven’t lost any livestock to cougars, Christa believes the cats have put fear in their horses.
“Those horses were so scared they were soaking wet, their whole bodies, from sweating all night and shaking the next day,” she explained of an incident four years ago.
According to Morrison’s research, scat samples revealed no signs of livestock depredation, although one sample from a previous student’s research in the Cypress Hills showed a cougar had killed a domestic cat.
“They are almost always deer specialists,” Boyce said. “They kill the occasional elk, a porcupine now and then and some beavers, snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse.”
But local ranchers have stated they suspect they’ve lost calves and had livestock attacked by the animal.
While cougars don’t generally take down animals quite as big as cattle, Boyce said they can and have.
When they do enter a populated area, they’re still trying to avoid human contact, he said. This is evident by their shift in movement at Cypress Hills Park during the summer, when they avoid the core area while visitors are present, according to Morrison’s research.
“They’re very shy of humans, and it’s very unusual for them to approach humans or to attack,” Boyce stated.
Across North America, there were 96 cougar attacks reported from 1890-2000, resulting in about 20 fatalities. The majority of fatalities occurred on Vancouver Island.
While rare, attacks do happen. Just last week, a two-year-old girl was attacked by a cougar in her family’s backyard in Tahsis, B.C. The animal had her head in its mouth, and her father punched the cougar until it let her go.
It’s these instances that make people nervous and reiterates the importance of being aware of the animal while in cougar country.
Cypress Hills Park provides information to visitors on safe practices such as travelling in groups while on hikes and making enough noise to alert the animal and allow it to keep its distance. If a cougar is encountered, keep children and pets close, speak in a loud, assertive voice, and give the cat room to escape. If an attack occurs, fight back aggressively.
“They’re coming back, and generally it’s not a serious concern,” Boyce said. “But you want to give them respect, and I think if I had kids playing in cougar country I’d keep an eye on them.”