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Train kills two cougar kittens in Banff National Park

"That’s five animals just in the last little while, so it’s definitely on our radar that that’s fairly high mortality," said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.
BVN cougars
A pair of cougars is caught on a remote trail camera in 2016. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF – Two cougar kittens have been run over and killed on the train tracks in Banff National Park.

Wildlife experts responded to a call from Canadian Pacific Railway that a train had hit two cougars on Thursday (March 18) at about 7:45 p.m. near Vermilion Lakes three kilometres west of town.

“It’s very sad,” said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.

The young wild cats were estimated to be about five months old.

There was no sign of the mother cat at the site, leading wildlife experts to suspect she’s either dead, or has abandoned her two young kittens.

Parks Canada’s wildlife vet performed a necropsy on the young animals.

“They were both emaciated and near death,” Hunt said.

DNA was collected from the young kittens to see if they are related to any of the other cougars that have died this year.

Hunt said it’s unlikely the kittens were related to the emaciated cougar that was euthanized by Parks Canada, noting that female cat showed no signs of lactating, and remote camera images showed she was travelling alone.

He said DNA analysis is checking if the kittens are related to a female cougar, which died in the capturing and collaring process, or her kitten found dead earlier that Jan. 22 day.

“We don’t think so, but we have got DNA and that will go into the lab,” Hunt said.

“Any of the animals we’ve handled in the last two months we’ll be looking for some relatedness to get a better understanding of what’s going on.”

Cougar kittens typically remain with their mother for about 13 to 24 months while they learn the hunting skills necessary to survive. Eventually, the mother will drive off her offspring and they will set out to establish their own home range.

In this case, Hunt said the most likely reason the young five-month-old kittens were on their own is because the mother has died.

“Sometimes a mother will kick them out because she’s moved on to breed with a male, but these ones are quite young for that,” he said.

Winter tracking every year by Parks Canada indicates there are typically two cougar family groups plus two to three lone cougars in the Bow Valley near Banff.

“It’s good habitat, so I am sure other animals will move in and fill those openings,” Hunt said.

“But certainly, that’s five animals just in the last little while, so it’s definitely on our radar that that’s fairly high mortality.”

Before their death, there had been no public sightings of these two young kittens reported to Parks Canada. They had not been photographed on remote cameras, either.

“They really weren’t on our radar despite having a lot of people calling in reporting,” Hunt said.

“So whether they were occupying areas a little further west of town and weren’t showing up on camera, we don’t know.”

Parks Canada reminds people to report any cougar sightings to Banff dispatch at 403-762-1470.

Hunt said it’s also important Banff residents don’t have anything in their yards to attract elk and deer, which can draw carnivores like cougars into the community.

“People like seeing elk and deer in the community, and this sometimes is part of what contributes to these challenging situations; we don’t want carnivores coming in to hunt in the community,” he said.

“The more we work as a community to make our yards and our residential areas unattractive for elk and deer, we’re helping those cougars wolves and bears out by doing that. We want to keep those carnivores wild.”

On Jan. 13, Parks Canada euthanized a sick and emaciated female cougar after it had been hunting deer in the townsite and followed a man walking his dog at very close range.

Another female cougar died on Jan. 22 in the late stages of recovery from acute respiratory failure during a drugging procedure to fit her with a tracking collar. A necropsy determined she had a pre-existing lung condition. Earlier that day, that female cougar’s kitten had been found dead on Tunnel Mountain. A necropsy found the 50-pound cougar had a broken femur and perforated stomach lining.

Canadian Pacific Railway did not comment to the Outlook prior to publication.