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CA: Low prey population results in increased cougar and wolf activity

By Yasmin Aboelsaud, Westerly News

The increasing number of cougar and wolf sightings on the West Coast is linked to the low prey population on the larger landscape, according to Bob Hansen a wildlife-human conflict management specialist at Parks Canada.

At a community event at the Tofino Botanical Gardens hosted by the Raincoast Education Society, Hansen spoke about the recent cougarrelated events in Tofino and Ucluelet.

“With low deer populations on the larger landscape, cougars and wolves are adapting their behaviours to access prey in human use areas like shorelines and newly distributed edge habitat in and around communities.”

According to diet analysis, Hansen says cougars and wolves are now taking advantage of the diverse prey that reside around coastlines such as river otters, harbour seals and raccoons.

Hansen is part of the Wildcoast Project, which is established to understand the links between predators, prey, people and landscape dynamics. The goal of the project is to increase the understanding of wildlife-human conflicts and to reduce the conflicts.

“We feel like [the cougars] are amongst us, when really we are around them,” Hansen said.

“These are events in a continuum. These are not random events that are just bolts of lighting out of the blue.”

Hansen described 2011 as a milestone year.

“Cougar attacks are incredibly rare,” he said.

“Statistically, there is a better chance of being struck by lightning. But there is a chance to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time and being attacked by an animal.”

This year, there has been one attack, one thwarted attack and two stalking incidents involving cougars. Sightings have been frequent throughout the summer.

The most recent cougar sighting was near the crab dock in Tofino, around 1 p.m. October 1. In Ucluelet, Hansen said, there were 38 reported sightings in September adding there are between three and five act-ive cougars in the area now.

As for the destruction of cougars, he said conservation officers have to make a judgement call if public safety is at risk, and although they use any information they have from previous reports and sightings, sometimes they have to act on a single report.

Because of the nature of cougars as highly territorial animals, relocation is usually not attempted.

“Decades of experience have proven over and over that relocation doesn’t work,” said Hansen.

Recently, with the rise of the numbers of wolves, both cougars and wolves are sharing the landscape and are direct competitors.

Wolves are scent hunters and travel beach areas smelling their prey from a distance and forming strategies on how to hunt the prey, Hansen said.

Cougars also travel beach areas, but are sight hunters.

They travel on drift logs or dune grass and sneak up as close as they can to ambush their prey.

The two use different techniques, but the coastline provides prey for both.

“Human behaviour can affect carnivore behaviour.”

Hansen said in about 80 per cent and 90 per cent of interactions, humans do not do anything or try to scare the animals away.

In some cases with wolves, people take pictures and videos instead of chasing them away.

Hansen said without negative consequences, wolves and cougars will continue to hunt in town.

“We know this pattern very well with bears. They [wolves and cougars] don’t know they have come into danger zones; we haven’t given them the warning,” said Hansen.

The single cougar attack this year was on an 18-month old toddler at Kennedy Lake’s Swim Beach in early September.

The area has been closed since then, and will continue to be closed until next spring.

“We were not successful in destroying that cat. We have no idea what goes on at Kennedy Lake,” Hansen said.

The conservation team is taking this time as an opportunity to learn and to reduce the risk to the public.

Hansen said this is an enforced closure over the winter.

In night images captured by Parks Canada staff, a cougar was spotted in the Kennedy Lake area two weeks after the attack.

In the event of a cougar encounter, Hansen asked residents to create space and scare them away.

“Don’t act like a deer, stand your ground. Be as loud as you can and act as large as you can,” he said.

Cougars do not like confrontation.

“If this happens consistently, if it’s going to be a hassle every time they poke their head out, they will still use the landscape, but they won’t pop their head out.”

For more on what to do in the event of an encounter with a cougar find the Safety Guide to Cougars at the B.C. Ministry of Environmnt website