Conservation officers and residents report increase in sightings, encounters
Cougar populations are on the rise in the Cypress Hills region of Saskatchewan and Alberta, causing some residents to become concerned.
Local rancher Lee Baynton has taken notice of the influx of cougars to the region:
“It was very, very rare until about seven or eight years ago,” Baynton told the News-Times over the phone. “You might see a track once every five or six years.”
“What I’m seeing in my area, they’re always around,” says Baynton, “but mid-summer, this time of year, basically they start to wean off the year-old kittens, and they’re the ones everyone is shooting in their yards.”
Baynton has been forced to shoot a cougar in defence of safety and property, as have two of his close neighbours.
“Pretty much everybody out in the country has had a run-in with them,” he says, adding the local deer population is “about half what it used to be.”
According to a 2015 paper by Carl Morrison et al of the University of Alberta, “The Cypress Hills Uplands, located in southwest Saskatchewan and southeast Alberta, was recently re-colonized by cougars and now supports the easternmost confirmed breeding population of cougars in Canada.”
The researchers made use of tracking collar data to examine the movements of cougars in the area, and concluded that a breeding population of the big cats can disperse itself over hundreds of square kilometres as young male cougars search for resources and mates. One young male fitted with a GPS collar as part of the study moved more than 750 kilometres from its place of birth.
“We don’t really have a population estimation for cougars at the moment,” Prince Albert Conservation Officer Kevin Harrison told the News-Times, “but I know sightings are becoming more common.”
Young cougars become independent between the ages of one and two, and will roam in spring and summer in search of a home range, often travelling in excess of 50 kilometres in a singe day according to information published by the Government of Saskatchewan. Humans are most likely to encounter a young cougar who is roaming independently for the first time.
“I don’t believe there have been any cougar-related injuries or deaths in Saskatchewan,” said Harrison. “I believe B.C. has had a few, and Alberta has had a few.”
Cougars prey primarily on deer, so it is recommended by the Province that landowners take steps to deer-proof their land to minimize cougar activity. Other steps landowners can take to minimize encounters include enclosing porches and outbuildings to prevent cougars from building dens, installing outdoor lighting, and avoiding feeding wildlife or leaving food outdoors.
Some landowners are skeptical of the preventative measures recommended by the Province, and Baynton notes that they are often impractical or ineffective for ranchers.
In Saskatchewan, landowners have the right to kill a cougar or any other wildlife “if they feel that such an animal is posing a danger to their family, property or livestock.” Landowners may delegate this duty to an employee, family member or licensed trapper, or contact predator control specialists employed by Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation.
“If [landowners] feel like the cougar is a direct threat, they’re able to shoot the animal,” said Harrison. “If you want to report a cougar sighting, or you feel one is a threat, you can call our TIP line: 1-800-667-7561.”
If a cougar is killed in defense of life or property, it must be reported to a conservation officer who will log the incident and advise on disposal. Baynton reports that in his case conservation officers arrived quickly and were “quite good about it.”
“We’ll take the animal usually to Saskatoon so we can get it tested and see if it’s sick or injured,” Harrison said.
“Cougars are out there,” said Harrison. “They’re going to be around.”