CATHY ELLIS BANFF
Two curious cougars have been caught and collared so wildlife officials can closely track them.
Banff National Park resource conservation officers caught the two young cats in the Tunnel Mountain area, Sunday (June 26) and fitted them with radio collars so their movements can be monitored daily.
Cougars are solitary animals and typically shy away from people, but Parks Canada officials say there have been several close encounters involving the two sub-adult cougars this past week.
Steve Michel, human-wildlife conflict specialist for Banff National Park, said the two cougars have not shown any aggressive behaviour, but have shown indifference towards people, and curiosity at times.
If the cougars continue to approach people, Michel said they might try using aversive conditioning by firing rubber bullets and noisemakers to try and make them more wary of humans.
“They certainly don’t flee when they encounter people. They have followed behind people for short distances on a couple of occasions, but it didn’t appear to be stalking behaviour, more of curiosity,” he said.
“The level of indifference shown to humans is somewhat concerning, so we want to instill a degree of wariness back into them. We may use aversive conditioning to teach them to be more wary of people.”
After being fitted with radio collars and ear tags, the cougars spent the night in a culvert trap to give them time to recover from the tranquilizer before being released into their home range the next morning.
The young cougars, thought to be around 18 months old, are in good health, with the female weighing an estimated 60 pounds and the male 75 to 80 pounds.
A warning was in place last week to alert people of cougar activity, but that has now been extended to cover a wider area, including all trails and facilities in the Tunnel Mountain area and along the bench.
“We expect that they will continue to be in that area and we will be actively monitoring them,” said Michel.
While future aversive conditioning is a possibility, Michel said he’s hoping the unpleasant experience in being captured and collared is enough to make the cougars want to keep away from people and human facilities.
He said aversive conditioning has been used on cougars before, with mixed results.
“Certainly the potential for success is lower than it is with bears, but there has been some successes in other locations, so we want to give this a try,” he said.
“Very similar to bears, we will try and allow these cougars to encounter us in a trail situation and teach them through use of various means to keep a safe distance from people and facilities,” he added.
“We’d use things like noise-makers and may even use impact projectiles such as rubber bullets. If it turns out to be close range, we’d likely use bear spray.”
According to much of the limited research published throughout North America on cougars, increased cougar activity or sightings does not necessarily mean cougar numbers are on the rise.
Some researchers say the apparent increase in cougar activity could be associated with more elk and deer, with the warmer winters brought on by global warming increasing the chances of their survival.
With the exception of bears, cougars are the largest predator in North America.
Their range once extended throughout the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, but today in North America, the species is only seen in the Rocky Mountains.
Despite their size, which can reach two metres in length, cougars are extremely shy animals and avoid humans. Masters of concealment and subterfuge, they are formidable hunters, like so many other felines.
Cougar attacks and encounters in Banff are extremely rare, though.
In January 2001, a pet dog left unattended was attacked by a cougar and badly injured and a local resident walking her dog was stalked by a cougar.
Then later that day, Frances Frost was attacked and killed by a cougar as she cross-country skied near Lake Minnewanka. That cougar was killed by wardens.
As for these young cougars, Michel said they have likely left their mother recently to go out on their own, and will likely investigate what is unknown to them.
“We know as young cougars they go through a learning and exploratory phase after dispersal and the potential for encounters can increase,” he said.
Michel said Banff does not have an active research program specifically for cougars, but winter snow-tracking and remote cameras at highway crossing structures gives them some idea on numbers.
“From those two sources, we had four to five adult cougars in the Banff field unit in the winter and spring, most of which were females accompanied by offspring of various ages,” he said.
“Based on that, I would say the cougar population appears to be healthy with respect to females and offspring in the Bow Valley.”
Parks Canada provides the following tips on ways to prevent a cougar encounter:
•Travel in groups;
•Keep children close by;
•Make lots of noise;
•Be aware of surroundings, including tracks and scat;
•Carry bear spray;
•Keep dogs on a leash at all times. Dogs may be seen as prey.
In the event that you do encounter a cougar;
•Never approach the animal and allow it a means of escape;
•Pick up small children and pets;
•Stay calm, don’t run. You may trigger a chase;
•Make yourself big, wave arms, sticks and objects over your head.
•Shout, throw rocks and sticks, use pepper spray.
•If approached, be aggressive and fight back.
•Steer clear of cougar kittens, as the mother will likely be close by.
Parks Canada asks that all carnivore sightings be reported to 403-762-1470.