On Science, Jasper Fitzhugh
By Niki Wilson
Several weeks ago Parks Canada Wildlife Conflict Specialist (and, disclosure, my husband) Geoff Skinner responded to a call from Jasper Park Lodge security asking for assistance. A cougar had taken down a female elk by Mildred Lake, posing a public safety concern to skaters and others using the area. At the same time, three cougars, thought to be a mother with two young, were spotted successfully taking down sheep in the east park. A week later a local guide and his very lucky clients – it was their first day in Canada – spotted a cougar across Highway 16 from the transfer station, yawning and stretching on an elk carcass just beyond the tree margin. (The group later went on to watch three wolves hunt sheep – happy holiday)!
I’ve been listening to these stories of cougar sightings, and as if suddenly noticing I’m a smallish female who frequently runs alone in the bush, I felt compelled to do a little research. How many cougars are there around here anyway? How likely is it that I’ll run into one? Are they perched on a branch as I run by and I just don’t know it?
Studies in the foothills adjacent to Jasper and Banff National Park suggest there is anywhere from two to four cougars per 100 km2 (about 39 square miles). One hundred square kilometers is about five times the surface area of Maligne Lake. Specific studies have not been done in Jasper National Park, but every year Parks Canada’s remote wildlife cameras record cougars moving along the Athabasca River Valley. Cougars are attracted to where their prey is. Right now, deer, elk and sheep seek out the snow-free grasses of the valley bottoms, and cougars are nearby waiting for an opportunity to catch a meal. Research in the foothills east of Banff suggests cougars kill a large animal every week or two. Right now, many local prey are hanging out in view of highways, or near public facilities, making sightings more likely.
Although cougars favour large game for food, they are survivors. They will eat anything animal, including insects, rodents and small mammals. When I was a child, an innovative female with damaged teeth took up residence under our neighbour’s trailer and had her kittens there. She took to making easy kills — neighbourhood pets – and her presence went undetected for weeks. The fact that a large cat could live and kill without notice in a densely populated trailer park is a testament to their stealth hunting ability and instinct to survive and protect their young. Needless to say, my sister and I weren’t allowed outside until the situation was resolved.
As a result of their adaptability, cougars have the largest range of any large cat in the world. Historically they have occupied most of the Americas, ranging from coast to coast, and from the southern tip of the Yukon Territory, to the Southern tip of Chili. Today they are found mainly in the western third of North America, some Central American Countries and the majority South America. They live in a variety of habitats, from the swamps of Florida to Canadian Boreal Forest. Decades ago hunting and human habitation eliminated them from the Eastern two thirds of their range in North America, but cougars continue to fair better than many of the world’s big cats.
Cougars, like household cats, are notably fastidious. The elk kill Skinner found at Jasper Park Lodge had been partially buried, an attempt to reduce the odour and hide the carcass until the cougar’s return. Nearby was a “latrine site,” used the same way a domestic cat uses a litter box to keep droppings away from food and living space. From the carcass, rounded, clawless tracks led to a bedding site nestled under a spruce tree. Nice and orderly.
The neat freak side of cougar behaviour fits well with their solitary, wary and territorial nature. We rarely see them (or evidence of them), although they most certainly see us. A Jasper photographer famously took a picture of a family under a tree at a local resort, only to notice upon development that a cougar was hanging out in the branches directly over their heads. They are experts at blending in, and it is definitely possible to walk by one in a wooded or grassy area and not know it.
Camouflage and stealth are critical to cougars; they survive as “ambush killers.” As solitary predators, they rely on the element of surprise to take down there prey. Although capable of sprinting, they tend to stalk prey quietly and undercover, before powerfully leaping upon them and delivering a suffocating bite to the neck. There is evidence they seek out prey that is more vulnerable. One study found that female ungulates (deer family) accounted for a higher proportion of cougar diet in the spring, just prior to and after birthing. The proportion of male ungulates eaten increased in the fall during the rut when males are more pre-occupied with fighting each other and trying to mate all the ladies.
With research in hand, I’ve discovered my feelings on traveling in cougar country haven’t changed much. They’re out there, and I’m probably in their presence more than I like to think about. It is thousands of times more likely that harm will come to me in the form of a car accident, and I try to let this fact be the pole that guides my fear compass. These days when I run alone I carry bear spray, tuck my pony-tail into a bandana, and in the words of a friend who has tracked cougars, “remember to look up.”