The wild cats among us

Cougars are wild, elusive and, to many, frightening. Experts across the province want to help change that perception.

It was 8:30 at night in July of 2020. The air was starting to cool after a warm summer day, and the sun had crossed over the top of Golden Ears Mountain. A dog ran along a trail in the provincial park. Its owners hiked along behind it.

Six minutes passed.

A cougar padded cautiously along the path. Its muscular shoulders moved with its gait; its long tail swept along the ground.

Snap. A trap was sprung. But the cougar continued its walk through the forested mountainside.

Michael Procko returned to the scene several days later. A Master’s student at the University of British Columbia’s Wildlife Coexistence Lab, Procko had set up 58 camera traps across Golden Ears Provincial Park in 2019. His goal was to see how wildlife and people use the same recreational spaces. He discovered cougars.

“This really shows how mountain lions are always there,” Procko said a year and a half later as he reviewed images from that July evening. The cougar wasn’t stalking the hikers—the time gap between the photos of the people and the cougar would have been much smaller if it was. Instead, the cougar was simply using the same space as the people, an occurrence Procko found became much more common during the early pandemic lockdowns.

In fact, many hikers might be surprised how often they coexist with cougars on their trail outings.

“With how often I see cougars in really close proximity to people, attacks happen a lot less frequently than they could,” Procko said. “They don’t want anything to do with us. And I think most of them are pretty good at keeping their distance, whether that’s through space or time.”

In a rapidly urbanizing area like the Fraser Valley, space is becoming less common. And we have almost no idea how that is impacting local cougar populations.

All about cougars

Puma concolor. Mountain lion. Puma. Cougar. Shxwúwe. All different names for the same big cat.

Standing 30 inches tall at the shoulder, and weighing more than 100 pounds, cougars are the largest of Canada’s three wild cats. (The other two are the bobcat and lynx.) Their heads are compact, and their thick, powerful tails make up around one-third of their body length. Tawny brown in colour, they blend into the undergrowth of the forests where they make their home.

In the Lower Mainland region, which spans from Phillips Arm on the coast to Hope in the valley, there were an estimated 450 to 650 cougars. The population is considered stable, the province says, despite the last estimate being made 23 years ago. Across the province, there are an estimated 7,000 cougars, and populations are booming elsewhere in the country.

Cougars are mostly solitary. They spend their adult lives pacing their expansive territories, stalking mule deer and other ungulates for food. Kittens will stay with their mothers for more than a year, learning how to hunt and how to navigate the forest.

For cougar researcher Siobhan Darlington, seeing a mother cougar in her den was one of her defining moments as a biologist.

Darlington and a student technician were in the backwoods near the Kettle River in southern BC, following the sound of beeping from their telemetry receiver. It showed how close they were to the female cougar with a radio collar, and they followed the noise through the forest. They wanted to see if she had made a kill. Instead, they came to a slash pile and found the cougar had given birth to a litter of kittens.

“We could hear the kittens meowing and we could see her through the cracks in the branches, watching us,” Darlington remembered. “She didn’t move… I think she didn’t want us to see her.”

“They’re not as ferocious as people think that they are,” she continued. “She was just trying to stay quiet, she didn’t want us to know she was there quietly sitting on top of her young in these thick branches.”

Darlington kept her distance, and the cougar’s eyes pierced through the branches, watching her. Darlington set up trail cameras to monitor the den. A month later, when the cougar had left her den, Darlington came back and assessed the kittens.

“This is a side to cougars that no one ever gets to see,” she said.

Cougars are similar in many ways to domestic house cats, Darlington said. They call to one another. They have retractable claws. They use specific areas, almost like litter boxes, where they cover up their feces. They roll around in the dirt and play with each other.

“Some people think [that] the most exciting part must be handling the cougar when we put the collar on,” Darlington said. “But to me it’s more special to observe their natural behaviours on camera, what they would normally do without us there.”

People and cougars

There is a lot of fear surrounding cougars—and a lot of uncertainty. The provincial government’s only easily accessible webpages on cougars include a 1998 manual for counting cougars, hunting regulations, a list of cougar deaths, predator management for caribou, and a how-to manual for people who may encounter cougars in the wild. The latter is important—every part of BC’s backcountry can be considered cougar country, and knowing what to do if you come in contact with a cougar will help ensure everyone leaves the encounter safely.

But despite the number of big cats that make their home in BC, the connections between cougars and people is extremely low. That’s because the cats want nothing to do with us.

Procko and colleagues at UBC’s Wildlife Coexistence Lab found this in his study on Golden Ears. He had started it in 2019 to look at how human recreation affects wild animals, and continued during the BC Parks closure at the start of the pandemic. He didn’t intend to look at cougars, but what he discovered ended up being his favourite part of his research.

Procko’s cameras captured very few cougars on Golden Ears in 2019. But when the parks closed at the start of the pandemic, cougars began popping up throughout the study area. A number of camera captures showed a mother and her two cubs moving around Golden Ears alongside other older cougars.

“I think it’s really cool that this mom and cubs got to use the landscape without some of the human pressures, to maybe help those cubs grow up to be a bit more healthy and have a better chance at surviving,” Procko said.

Darlington saw this in the Okanagan as well. Despite the seemingly tempting herds of cattle grazing in ranchers’ fields, cougars would prefer to hunt in the forested backcountry. And they do their best to avoid residential areas as well.

Darlington tracked one cougar that was attempting to find new territory to the south. It travelled from the Okanagan down to Spokane, Wash., where it ended up at the edge of the city. It waited there for many days.

“There was nowhere [to cross] because there’s so many highways, and it’s risky,” Darlington said. “So the cougar just turned around and went straight … back into British Columbia.”

The cities end up functioning like large lakes, barriers that dispersing cougars need to traverse. If they can find a safe place to cross, they move ahead, usually at night. In cities, you can predict where that might be by looking at a satellite map. If a city has a continuous corridor of trees the cougars can travel among and hide, they’ll be able to get across. Otherwise, they may try to go around or head back the way they came.

“It’s not a final destination, a big city. It’s an obstruction,” Darlington said. “An area that’s highly developed, like in the Lower Mainland, is not an ideal place for a cougar.”

If a cougar is there, it’s possibly young, injured, or starving. In short, it’s desperate.

When attacks happen in British Columbia

In May of last year, a woman was attacked on her property in Harrison Mills by two young male cougars. She had to be airlifted to hospital, and the BC Conservation Service brought in their hounds to track the animals. Then, the officers put the cougars down.

It wasn’t the first cougar attack in the area that spring. A post on a backcountry Facebook group noted that a cougar attacked a dog while its owners walked along the road to 10 Mile Bay on Harrison Lake, a few kilometres from the site where the woman was attacked a few days later.

The pair of cougars were likely brothers travelling through the area in their search for territory of their own. That may have been why they attacked. Young cougars might not recognize the risk of being near humans. Or they may have been injured by an older male looking to keep them out of his territory.

“You end up with cougars that have some sort of injury or health issue, and that’s when they’re just desperate,” Darlington said. “They’ll do anything to try and survive. But that’s a very small portion of all cougars.”

In the last century, only five people have been killed by cougars in BC. Although more have been injured, this remains a very small proportion of human interactions with cougars.

But these kinds of interactions seemed to be on the rise in Port Moody and Coquitlam in March 2020.

In 2020, Thomas Knowles began getting calls from people who had heard about cougars going after people’s dogs. Knowles is the project director for ECHO Conservation, an organization that advocates for an ethical approach to wildlife management. One man said he had been stalked by one of the big cats on a walk. The callers wanted to know what ECHO could do to help.

At that time, the answer was “not much.” But Knowles wanted to be able to help. That’s what spurred the creation of the Human-Cougar Coexistence pilot project.

The project aims to not only help people understand what to do when they encounter a cougar, but also build a better understanding of what cougars are really doing in the Lower Mainland. Education and outreach are key, Knowles said.

Conservation officers and other officials are reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to cougar management, he said. A cat acts aggressively, and conservation officers are brought in to handle the situation. If the cougar represents a risk to the general public, it is destroyed. Last year, 47 cougars were killed by conservation officers. Nineteen others were destroyed by other agencies or the public. (Cougars can also be hunted: eight cats were killed by hunters in the Lower Mainland area in 2020.)

Knowles thinks he can help reverse that paradigm. “By being able to actually monitor cougars through tracking and trail cameras, we’re hoping that we can take a bit more of a proactive response,” he said.

“It’s really a privilege for us to be able to live so close to these large carnivores and to be able to be around them,” he added. “What we’re hoping is that we can have other people be able to feel that way as well.”

The project is now off the ground. The first step, a survey to better understand locals’ perception of cougars, drew 1,700 responses. Those are now being read and analyzed. In the future, the project will include trail cameras throughout the Lower Mainland, site visits for hobby farmers who want help cougar-proofing their livestock pens, and educational opportunities to teach people about their local big cats.

The aim is as much about protecting cougars from people as it is about protecting people from the cats.

“I think that in the very rare situation where cougars are seen, if we know how to behave appropriately, then we can reduce the amount of cougars that are killed every year, and also build up support for this incredible species.”

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