CANMORE – A cougar followed two hikers and their dog at close range during a scary 20-minute ordeal in the Three Sisters last Friday evening, prompting an official warning for residents to be extra vigilant.
Provincial wildlife experts say the cougar followed them for about one kilometre from the Highline Trail to a residential neighbourhood near Hubman Landing around dusk – an active time of day for cougars – and came to within about 10 metres.
John Paczkowski, an ecologist with Alberta Environment and Parks, said he suspects the cougar was hunting elk in the area, noting the two people thought they had initially spooked an elk herd in the area before seeing the cougar across the field.
“They backed away towards the community and the cougar followed them, coming as close as 30 feet,” he said, noting the couple was armed with pepper spray.
“As they got closer to the streetlights, the distance between them and the cougar increased. It followed them for about a kilometre over the course of 20 minutes.”
Following the report, AEP was quick to issue a warning, which covers an area of Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park in Canmore between the Rider’s of Rohan trail and the Middle Sister trail.
While cougars usually like to hunt at night and in the dawn and dusk hours, Paczkowski said the animal’s behaviour was quite unusual.
“It is unusual for a cougar to do a frontal pursuit of people; usually cougars are ambush hunters,” he said. “This cougar was obviously fairly intent.”
Paczkowski suspects the cougar was more interested in the dog, which is easy prey. It is not known if the dog was on or off-leash at the time of the encounter.
“Cougars like to eat deer-sized prey, prey that’s about their size or even smaller, so the enticement of an animal like a dog there in the twilight could have been enough to have that cougar pursue,” he said.
“We’ve seen that happen before in and around Canmore, where cougars get intent on dogs and in some cases have actually attacked and killed those dogs.”
In October 2019, a cougar was shot and killed by conservation officers after it killed one dog and tried attacking another in an area near Ha Ling Peak and the East End of Rundle.
From a biological perspective, Paczkowski said this is a time of year when cougars may find it tougher to get food.
He said ungulates like deer and elk – the preferred prey species of cougars – are in their prime condition.
“All the elk and deer right now are as fat and as healthy as they’re going to get, and so as a predator going after those animals, the fall time is the most challenging time because their prey species are fit,” Paczkowski said.
“We typically see a spate of these kinds of incidents in the fall months, say between now and Christmas, where cougars might get food-stressed and might push the limits a little bit and have those encounters with people and/or pets.”
AEP has been monitoring for additional reports of the cougar since last Friday, but so far there have been none.
People are advised to travel in groups, make lots of noise, keep pets on leash and carry bear spray.
Paczkowski said pepper spray has deterred cougars in the past.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to carry your bear spray right now,” he said.
If a cougar is seen in the distance, residents and visitors are to back away slowly and cautiously.
When a cougar is close or showing aggressive behaviour – like hissing and snarling or staring intently or tracking movements – don’t run or play dead.
“Stand your ground and group together, be assertive, be aggressive,” Paczkowski said. “You want the cougar to know that you’re not to be trifled with.”
Attacks on humans are extremely rare because cougars do not typically see people as prey.
Alberta’s only fatality occurred in January 2001, when a cougar killed Canmore’s Frances Frost, 30, as she was cross-country skiing near Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park.
Please report all cougar sightings immediately to 403-591-7755.