The bizarre behaviour of a cougar in Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island earlier this month is a brazen new level of threat not to mention a new level of boldness by a wild animal that is characteristically elusive and secretive. The cougar stalked a pet cat and followed it right into its owner’s living room. Flying on instinct, the owner persuaded the cougar to leave by yelling at it then watched it join a second cougar before disappearing.
That was a pretty close encounter. Apparently the incident happened as a result of the habits of the mother cougar which had become habituated to humans and had taught her two offspring to hunt in the village. She had been shot in December and the two young cougars were following her lead, staking turf, and looking for food. The domestic cat was a pretty good target.
Cougar sightings happen on occasion in Ucluelet which is also visited by wolves, coyotes and lots of deer. But when the deer disappear into the bush, the local people know there’s likely a cougar on the prowl.
You don’t have to go to Vancouver Island to find cougars. There are wild cats on Vedder Mountain, Sumas Mountain and throughout the backcountry beyond Chilliwack. There have been occasional sightings on biking trails and in the bush by the road around Cultus Lake. Last fall there were sightings on Sumas. But all of them were fleeting and the cat was quickly gone.
Cougars are iconic wilderness species and in the big scale of things sightings are rare and encounters even more so. The number of people killed by cougars is extremely low with only seven recorded in B.C. since 1949, four of which were on Vancouver Island and five of the victims were children.
According to a 2010 report by the Rainforest Conservation Foundation, B.C.’s Neglected Carnivore, eight people have been killed in the province between 1900 and 2009. Notably, the trend in negative encounters has not increased. Yet people are naturally wary, especially given reports of pets taken right off the leash by opportunistic cougars or wild cats preying on livestock.
Managing cougars has its own challenges given they have low population densities, large home ranges and disperse over wide distances making protection of their continuous habitat a central driver to their conservation.
But on Vancouver Island as with our own local backcountry and elsewhere, the land is fragmented by multi-use activities such as logging, mining, road building, and recreational activities. Fragmented habitat can lead to cougars becoming more isolated and reduce their roaming that in turn leads to reduced genetic diversity and increased inbreeding. Their dispersal can bring them to people’s doorstep which often ends in a bullet.
Finding non-lethal ways to manage problem cougars is challenging and leans heavily on human behaviour rather than on the wild cats.
Garbage must be kept secured, pets and small children must be guarded if there have been reports of cougar sightings, livestock must be contained, fenced or guarded, and proactive efforts to scare away cougars should be taken to keep their fear level high. A cougar that has lost its fear of humans is a public safety concern and conservation officers must be notified to force it back to wild country or take alternative measures.
Cougars are not good candidates for tranquilizing and translocation. The stresses are very high on these sensitive cats and they face other risks including a rival cougar if they have been dropped in another’s hunting turf.
The cougar that invaded the house was tracked and shot in early January. The third cougar has disappeared and deer are drifting back to Ucluelet once more.