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Cougar

aka Puma or Mountain Lion…etc.

Puma concolor….(one colour)

Introduction 

Cougar are one of the most secretive mysterious and elusive of all wild animals. Few BC residents have ever seen a cougar and most of us will live our lives without a glimpse of a cougar or, much less, experience a confrontation with one.

 

An exceptional predator, cougar are very near the top of the food chain and capable of killing even the largest wildlife in our province. However, researchers have also found that wolves, grizzly bears and black bears often dominate over cougar.

 

Cougar are also occasional victims of human misconceptions and irrational fears. 

 Range

Cougar exist only in the Western Hemisphere, from the Yukon and British Columbia to Patagonia in southern Argentina and Chile. Cougar, once extirpated from most of eastern North America, have slowly recolonized some of that former range.

 

Cougar live in forests, lowlands, mountainous terrain and even deserts up to an elevation of 5,800 m. They prefer steep canyons, escarpments, rim rocks, dense brush and, in BC, areas with a high density of black-tailed deer.

 

In Canada, the cougar ranges from British Columbia east to New Brunswick. In British Columbia, cougars primarily occupy the southern third of the province of British Columbia, including, most coastal islands. 

 

Canadian Geographic estimates:  “There are likely anywhere between 5,500 and 9,000 animals in Canada — more data is needed to refine this estimate.”     On the other hand, the University of Victoria estimates 4000 cougars are believed to be in Canada, of which, 3500 live in BC and of these nearly 600-800 live on Vancouver Island which has the highest concentration of cougars in the world. In BC cougars may occupy lower elevations during the winter, but higher terrain in summer. 

 

In the Western Hemisphere, cougar ranges, from north to south, overlay many diverse human cultures which have generated a variety of local names or nicknames beyond mountain lion and puma. These names include: panther, catamount, ghost cat, mountain screamer, Mexican lion, painter, red lion, American lion, deer tiger, Indian devil, and South American mountain lion, to name but a few. The Provincial Government of BC uses "Cougar" and so shall we.

Characteristics - Anatomy

The adult cougar is a large animal, the heaviest recorded weight being 125 kg.  In British Columbia, large cougar between 86 and 95 kg have been recorded but the average adult male weighs about 57 kg and the average female about 45 kg. Large adult males may measure 9 feet in length, (this includes a 30-inch tail).

 

Cougar in B.C. have short hair ranging from reddish-brown to silvery-grey-brown with underparts, jaws, chin, and throat, generally lighter in colouration. Young cougar kittens are magnificently spotted, and have ringed tails; these markings gradually fade away after six months, as cougars approach adulthood.

 

Specimens of black, white or light-coloured cougars have been documented but are extremely rare.

 

With large paws and hind legs that are much longer than their front legs as well as a highly flexible spine, cougars enjoy excellent maneuverability. They are capable of incredible horizontal leaps of 12 - 13 metres.

 

According to Guinness World Records:  “The highest jump on record for any mammal was recorded for a puma or mountain lion Puma concolor, which jumped 7 m (23 ft) straight up from a standstill. Moreover, another specimen actually leapt 3.6 m (11 ft 10 in) from the ground into the fork of a tree while carrying the carcase (sic) of a deer in its mouth!”

 

They are excellent tree climbers. They can sprint at 80 kph for short distances and can swim up to 5 km.

Eyesight:    Cougars have exceptional eyesight and they can see distant objects (prey) 2-3 miles away which is said to be 8 times further than humans.  Compared to humans who have very limited peripheral vision, cougar have a wider range of vision—they can see through an arc of 285 degrees.

 

Cougar are nocturnal and see clearly at night partly because their eyes have more rods than cones and their retinas are especially receptive to low light conditions. Behind the retinas, an additional cell layer called the tapetum lucidum reflects available light back through the eye, which enhances night vision and also makes their eyes appear to glow in the dark.

 

Fangs and Teeth:   Mountain lions have a formidable set of teeth. Starting at the front are the incisors and canine and towards the back are the molars and carnassial teeth.

 

Most noticeable are the four large 2 inch long canines which are thick and strong and highly effective in piercing and puncturing to achieving a quick kill.

 

The incisors are rather small and straight and used for chewing.

 

Large, carnassials at the back of the mouth are sharp and long and used to cut up and lacerate prey while feeding. Premolars are smaller and located in front of the rear carnassials.

When hunting, cougars use their teeth which have a bite force of about 400 pounds per square inch. They are predisposed to attack and bite the head or neck of their prey and, at the same time, inflict even more damage with their paws; incredible damage and death can be expected.

Cougar teeth are initially white but start to yellow at 2 years, deepening in colouration as they age.

Cougar Calls:   Cougars do not "roar"!  Instead they vocalize a wide variety of sounds from a “chuckle” to other sounds one might expect from a house cat, such as: hisses, spits, growls, and even mews. Males and kittens frequently emit a whistle-like sound which is believed to attract the mother.

But most shocking is a piercing, drawn-out scream by female cougar, mainly during the mating period.  Described variously as nerve-wracking, demoniac, terror-striking, a trilling wail, and thrillingly impressive it is, nonetheless, a sound that few humans have heard.  The following short video provides this experience in the comfort of your home:

Life Cycle

Cougars are an integral part of wildlife population in the Georgia Depression and Coast Mountains.  They are often found in habitats that are partially open and rocky but will not hesitate to follow food anywhere. In B.C.  A cougar’s territory varies with terrain and the availability of prey but, on average, is thought to be about 15 square kilometres. They mark their territory with “scratch piles” (a cougar scrapes the ground forming a small mound of dirt, leaves and debris and then urinates and leaves scat upon the scratch pile).

Cougars have a life expectancy of 8 to13 years in the wild.  They are polygamous (one male may breed with several females). Females reach sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age. Breeding may take place at any time of the year but studies have identified that “birth pulses” do occur:  In a 2012 study “Birth Timing for Mountain Lions (Puma concolor); Testing the Prey Availability Hypothesis”, a birth pulse extending from 1 Jun thru August 31 was identified (see chart below) in the study area, the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The gestation period is about 96 days.  Although six-kitten-litters have been recorded, data for British Columbia indicates that litters up to four  kittens are the norm.

 

The female gives birth to her young in a den or nursery situated in rocks, holes, or even in dense vegetation and old growth trees.

Kittens are born with their eyes closed, (eyes open 10 - 14 days after birth). Only the female tends the young; the male leaves the female after mating. The kittens nurse for about six weeks after which they will begin to eat meat.  At six months, they begin hunting small prey (squirrels and rabbit)  and they stay with their mother for about 15 months.

Although cougars are solitary animals, they can be seen in groups such as: mating pairs, females accompanying kittens, and sub-adult siblings travelling together. 

Cougar family.JPG

Hunting and Feeding

Cougar are carnivores; they hunt and eat mammals ranging in size from small (raccoon and porcupines) to 600 kilogram elk and moose. The primary food for cougars on the Sunshine Coast are black-tailed deer and, it is calculated that an adult cougar might consume 14 to 20 deer each year to survive.

 

They also hunt elk, fox, coyotes, bighorn sheep, juvenile moose, cattle and other small livestock.  Cougar are opportunistic and depending on local conditions will hunt for sick or elderly deer or smaller game such as hare, porcupine and even domestic animals such as dogs.

While cougars might be seen during daylight, they are nocturnal and hunt primarily around dusk and dawn when they have the best chance of finding deer, foxes and elk who are also nocturnal.

 

Using their excellent night vision, they hunt by carefully stalking prey and then ambushing using surprise and speed. The attack is usually a lightening-fast-series of two or three jumps ( 20-50 feet) followed by a jump onto the shoulders and a downward bite through the back of the neck of the prey.

 

After a new kill, cougar will drag the carcass to a sheltered area where they initially feed on certain internal organs such as heart, spleen and kidneys. Later they will make repeated visits to feed on the carcass, covering it with dirt and debris after each visit. About 70 percent (by weight) of the carcass of a large animal is devoured. The larger bones, rumen, some viscera, and hide are abandoned.

Earlier we mentioned that wolves, grizzly bears and black bears often dominate over cougar. This domination goes beyond physical prowess, it also means that a carcass killed by a cougar may be stolen by wolves, grizzly bears and black bears, a theft of food that a cougar may choose not to contest.

Enjoy the short video bellow: Bears Take Meals from Pumas (Cougar).

Although the chances of ever seeing a cougar are slim, it is very possible that you might encounter evidence of their presence while walking through their domain. Knowing how to recognize cougar scat, tracks, scratch piles etc. is highly important to your situation awareness and personal safety.

Tracks:  Each cougar track has four toes and an M-shaped heel pad (two lobes at the leading edge, and three lobes at the base). Claws do not show in their prints unless needed on difficult terrain for traction or during the pursuit of prey. In snow, the lower portion of  a cougar’s tail can leave drag marks between each print.

Scat:  Cougar scat is dense and segmented, with rounded ends that may or may not have small “tails”. It can look like a (“ropey”) cord with segments (although it can also be a solid piece) and can be as short as 5 inches and as long as 9.5 inches and 1 - 1.5 inches wide.  Coloration is bown, black, or grayish-white colors, and almost always contains hair, teeth and bone fragments and is usually observed partially covered by dirt or leaves.  Cougar scat is roughly the same size as that of a large dog or cougar, so it may be difficult to tell the difference. Smaller scat is deposited by juvenile cougar.

Cache:   After killing and feeding on large prey, cougars will then cover the remains of the carcass with leaves, pine needles and other debris to hide it from other animals.  Cougar will feed from this cashe for several days so, if you see a cashe, they may not be far away.

 

Scrapes:  Male cougars frequently make scrapes as markers for other cougars leaving them in conspicuous places along trails, at junctions, and along ridge lines. Using their hind feet to push up a mound of pine needles, leaves, dirt and debris, they may also urinate or defecate on the scrape.

Activities or Behaviour that might cause harm to humans

There are few authentic instances of cougar attacking humans. Normal cougar behaviour is to avoid humans although they are known to be curious about human activity. Attacks on humans are usually attributed to cougar who are aged or starving or  defending their young.

According to wikipedia: “A total of 126 attacks, 27 of which were fatal, have been documented in North America in the past 100 years. Fatal cougar attacks are extremely rare and occur much less frequently than fatal snake bites, fatal lightning strikes, or fatal bee stings. Children are particularly vulnerable. The majority of the child victims listed here were not accompanied by adults.”

This published list of fatal cougar attacks may be viewed by clicking here:

Most conflicts with cougars occur in rural communities or where people live in isolated wilderness settings or when people spend leisure time in cougar country. Although a cougar attack is highly unlikely, it always pays to be prepared. Information and awareness are your best defence.

Food for Thought:  In cases where a cougar attacks an animal in a herd or corral, the other nearby animals will scatter and try to escape.  Seeing these fleeing animals, can trigger, within the cougar, an instinctive predatory response to instantly give chase and attack these fleeing animals one after another.  Understanding and respecting this instinctive-predatory-response is of paramount importance, so important that all the best advice and guidelines include the following points:

 

Maintain eye contact - Never turn your back on a cougar - Never run away

- Sudden movements may provoke attack.

 

Simply put, if you panic and try to escape you will very likely be seen by a cougar to be "prey" and so the cougar will most likely spring into a chase and attempt to attack you; a human cannot out-run a cougar capable of an 80 kmph sprint!

 

This video of a stare-down between human and cougar, on Vancouver Island, is a study of patience and respect and thus you might forgive the sometimes shaky video!

…so there you are, face-to-face with a cougar

The following are guidelines, directly quoted, from WildSafeBC:  “If you live in cougar habitat, ensure your children know how to react in a cougar encounter. Always report aggressive cougar behaviour, kill sites or cougar sightings in urban areas to the BC Conservation Officer Service.

The best cougar encounter is the one you avoid. Avoid walking alone and avoid surprise encounters by making noise with your voice. Note that loud water or high winds may prevent your voice from carrying far. Pets should be kept under control and on leash in wildlife country. Do not wear headphones so that you can be aware of your surroundings. Avoid hiking or using trails with poor sight lines at dawn and dusk when predators are most active.

If you encounter a cougar, keep calm and never run. Make yourself look as large as possible and back away slowly, keeping the cougar in view, and allowing a clear exit for the cougar. Pick up children and small pets immediately. Older children should be kept close and in front of you so that you can ensure they remain calm and don’t try to flee. Never run or turn your back as sudden movements may provoke an attack. Cougar may vocalize when cornered or acting defensive. These vocalizations can range from a “hissing” to a deep growling sound. This is often a warning to back off.

If you notice that a cougar that is watching you, maintain eye contact with the cougar and speak to it in a loud firm voice. Reinforce the fact that you are a human and not an easy target. If you have bear spray, withdraw it from the holster and remove the safety. Back out of the area and seek assistance or shelter.

If a cougar shows aggression, or begins to follow you, respond aggressively. Keep eye contact, yell and make loud noises. Never ‘play dead’. Without crouching down, pick up nearby sticks, rocks, or whatever you have at hand to quickly to use as a weapon if necessary.

If the cougar attacks, fight back, focusing on its facial and eye area. If you have bear spray, discharge it. Use rocks, sticks or personal belongings as weapons. You are trying to convince the cougar that you are a threat, and not prey. If you are in a group, stay together to fend off the cougar attack.

In the unlikely event you encounter cougar kittens (they are usually well-hidden by their mother), do not attempt to handle or approach them. Leave the area immediately.”

How can Humans Help and Respect

Cougars are largely feared and misunderstood by the general public and so conversations about helping or respecting cougars may be difficult for some.

 

On the other hand, knowledge can be the most important element towards the mitigation of fear, so that we can continue to find a more successful co-existence and relationship with these natural predators.

 

Developing  a sound understanding and compassion for cougars will displace fear and encourage more responsible behaviour when we enter cougar domains.

 

Never go alone!

Take a stick, Noise maker or a whistle, Bear spray,

Cel phone ( with COS number in your contacts)

and leash for your dog

 

In a June 13, 2023 article in Coast Reporter the story of the aftermath of a cougar encounter on the B+K trail system in Roberts Creek was published.  Conservation Officer Service was active with trail camera monitoring as well as patrols of the area twice a day. To read more about this story, here is the direct link to: Coast Reporter    

Provincial predator statistics (example below) represent calls received from the public and the subsequent actions taken by the Conservation Officer Service (COS) in response to those calls. The reports are made to the B.C. Report All Poachers and Polluters (R.A.P.P.) hotline 1-877-952-7277 and website.  These statistics include calls and reports received through R.A.P.P. for black bears, grizzlies and cougars in the identified month. The numbers are then broken down by the number of incidents attended and the action taken by COS in response to the reports. Actions include: predators destroyed by a Conservation Officer (CO) or other, translocation, hazing or transporting bear cubs rehabilitation.

 

Here is BC provincial data up to August 2023 for calls received concerning only cougars:

Important

To report cougars in conflict, sightings in urban areas, or a cougar showing unusual or aggressive behaviour, call the Conservation Officer Service at 1-877-952-7277.

(consider adding this to your contacts list)

Cougar - Endangered Species in BC?

Cougar, were once extirpated from most of eastern North America but have, during the 1960s and 70’s, enjoyed greater public support and  slowly recolonized some former ranges and increased populations.

 

Cougars are, for the most part, doing very well in British Columbia’s wilderness. Today, the main threat to cougars is from humans; cougars suffer from habitat loss due to human development, urban sprawl, logging as well as sport hunting.

 

Currently the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)  designates the Cougar status as “Not at Risk”. In BC, the British Columbia Conservation Data Center (BCCDC) lists cougar status as “Yellow”, which is assigned to any species or ecosystem that is apparently secure or secure (least risk of being lost).

Rainy Day viewing.png

This video from British Columbia Wildlife Federation is a current and interesting presentation about the Southern B.C. Cougar Project. 

References

 

Wildsafe BC, Cougar Snapshot:  https://wildsafebc.com/species/cougar/

 

Pacific Wild, Cougar Coexistence Project published 2023:  https://pacificwild.org/cougar-coexistence/

 

BC Government site with information on how to stay safe if you encounter a cougar:  https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/wildlife/human-wildlife-conflict/staying-safe-around-wildlife/cougars

 

BC Environment, 1994, A rather dated source of information about cougars in British Columbia:   http://wwwt.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/cougar.htm

 

British Columbia Conservation Data Centre:

https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/conservation-data-centre

 

Canadian Geographic:  The cat came back: Canada’s cougar comeback:  https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/the-cat-came-back-canadas-cougar-comeback/

 

Floofmania - about cougars and hunting  https://floofmania.com/mountain-lion-hunting/

 

Vancouver is Awesome, Cougars on Vancouver Island:  https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/bc-news/cougars-bc-vancouver-island-population-1946304

 

Sierra Club of BC, Cougar:  https://sierraclub.bc.ca/cougar/

 

Wikipedia, Cougar:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cougar

 

E-FAUNA BC: ELECTRONIC ATLAS OF THE WILDLIFE OF BRITISH COLUMBIA E-Fauna:  https://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/efauna/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Puma concolor

Wikipedia-List of Fatal Cougar Attacks in North America: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fatal_cougar_attacks_in_North_America

 

Cougar.pdf:   https://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/efauna/Atlas/

 

Mountain Lion Foundation - evidence of a cougars presence:  https://mountainlion.org/2010/01/01/sign-evidence-of-a-lions-presence/

 

Coast Reporter - 2023 news article on cougar:   https://www.coastreporter.net/local-news/no-more-sightings-of-cougar-roberts-creek-trails-still-being-monitored-7138580

 

British Columbia.com,  information about cougars for visitors:  https://britishcolumbia.com/about-bc/facts-and-information/safety-guide-to-cougars/

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