Sharing the landscape with cougars and regaining comfort in cougar territory

            In Saskatchewan, the elusive cougar has created quite a stir with the local media and residents over the last several months, so I figured that now is a good time to discuss the cougar and what to do if one is spotted.

            Contrary to what many believe, cougars once ranged across the prairies but were displaced to more remote mountain regions as settlement advanced. Over the past two decades, they have been expanding their range eastward and are recolonizing much of their former range.

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            In Saskatchewan, cougars are a natural part of the landscape, especially in the Cypress Hills region and along the entire length of the forest fringe from Meadow Lake to Hudson Bay.

          These animals are a sign of healthy ecosystems and sightings often go unreported. This being said, people have to understand that cougars are around and part of the environment.

            Many often go into bear country without even batting an eye when spotting a bear.    Because travellers anticipate bears to be around, they behave differently and take precautions in outdoor activities. People have to learn to do the same thing with cougars.

            Other provinces and jurisdictions have learned to co-exist with these elusive creatures for many years. Once people have a better understanding of cougar behaviour and how to react when seeing one, they will be that much more comfortable when in cougar territory.

            First of all, cougars do not like people and do their best to avoid humans. I have been an officer for 25 years and have never seen one in the wild.

            They are active at night and in the early mornings and tend not to travel in broad daylight.

            Historically, there has not been a documented cougar attack on a human here in Saskatchewan.

            Their primary food source is deer, but they will also prey on elk, rabbits, beaver, porcupines, raccoons and grouse.

            Cougars tend to hide or stash their food and will avoid eating where they could be spotted.

            On average, an adult male cougar is about seven to eight feet long from nose to the tip of his tail. The tail, which is the key feature here as it is about one-third of the cat’s total length, is thick and has a black tip at the end.

            Cougars can leave tracks as well that may serve as an indicator. Cougar tracks show four toes on both the front and hind paws. There will be no claw marks as they are retracted when they walk. There will also be an M-shaped heel pad with two lobes at the top or leading edge, and three lobes at the base.

            A male cougar’s territory can range from 100 to 1,000 square kilometres in size depending upon terrain, vegetation and prey abundance.

            Cougars are very protective of their young and their territories. Scrape marks, urine, and feces are common markers used to mark territory and attract mates.

            Contrary to what some believe, cougars cannot roar like other big cats. They can, however, purr like a house cat and growl like….well, a larger house cat!

            So now that you know what a cougar looks like, what should you do if you see one?

           Well, as difficult as this may be to do, keep calm. If it is at a distance then it should just keep moving on. If it is a close encounter, make yourself look as large as possible and back away slowly, keeping the cougar in view and allowing a clear exit for it.

            Pick up children and small pets immediately. Never run or turn your back as sudden movements may provoke an attack.

            Report all sightings to your local conservation officer.

            Many times we have no idea of cougar activity because no one reports it. We would like to come out and investigate it to either confirm or quash the sighting in hopes of avoiding panic in the area.

            Have there been attacks on domestic livestock?

            Yes, but very few. Some domestic animal attacks get blamed on cougars even though they had no involvement. Many times other predators like coyotes, bears, wolves or even pet dogs are the ones responsible for the attack.

            If a cougar is spotted on someone’s property, can it be killed?

            Landowners do have the right in Saskatchewan to kill any predator, including wolves, bears and cougars, on their own land if the animal is posing an immediate threat to their family, property or livestock.

            This means that just because one sees a cougar, he or she cannot simply shoot it because it is near the house or might be a problem later.

            Cougars are protected in Saskatchewan and all cougar kills are investigated.

            If a cougar is taken under the authority of a landowner’s right, the local conservation officer must be notified.

            A permit can be issued if the landowner wishes to retain the cougar.

            Is there any truth to the rumour that cougars were intentionally released into Saskatchewan?

            Folks, please believe me when I say that the government did not implement a plan to release cougars into the wild to control the deer population.

            Some residents and landowners are convinced of this, even though it goes against every wildlife management practice on the planet. This rumour is false.

            Why can’t a cougar be captured, removed from an area and then relocated?

            If the cougar is acting and behaving the way it should be, then there should never be an issue.

            Problems arise when the animal becomes comfortable around humans. At this point, re-locating a problem animal is simply moving the problem from one area to another.

            What should producers do when they suspect a predation kill?

            When any predator is suspected of killing livestock, producers should contact the nearest Saskatchewan Crop Insurance office to report the incident.

            The crop insurance adjuster will contact a conservation officer to meet on site for the claim and to look at the kill site to determine the cause of death.

            If there are multiple predation events in one location, Crop Insurance has qualified predation management specialists available to help solve the problem by removing the suspected predator.

            In most cases this is used for coyote predation on sheep or cattle. The specialist will come in and evaluate the situation and then make suggestions to the producer and attempt to remove the predator.        

            If you have any questions or concerns about cougars in your part of the province, please contact your local conservation officer. Please remember to report all cougar sightings to your local officer as well.

            Finally, with the beginning of a new year, I would be remiss if I did not take the time to thank those of you who reported a violation, an injured animal or took time to get involved in the protection of our fish and wildlife. Thank you to the RCMP officers who assisted with injured animal calls that a conservation officer was unable to get to, the highway workers for picking up these animals off the road, and to the vets and wildlife rehabilitators who assessed and treated injured animals brought to them by the public.

            I would also like to remind everyone that conservation officers are only a part of a bigger team including biologists, dispatch operators and our very helpful customer support staff who assist you at our offices. On behalf of each of us, I hope that you had a great holiday season and that you have a safe and happy 2017.

            Until next time…keep your rod tip up!

            (EDITOR’S NOTE: Ministry of Environment conservation officer Lindsey Leko has spent more than 25 years as a conservation officer in Saskatchewan. For many years, Officer Leko contributed a column to local papers on a variety of issues related to hunting, fishing, and other resource-related issues. If you have questions, please contact lindsey.leko@gov.sk.ca.)