Cougar management needed

Nothing demonstrates Alberta’s city-country divide quite like peoples’ attitudes to cougars. A cougar was recently shot and killed in a busy Calgary location because the conservation officers considered tranquilizing the big cat could pose a serious threat to public safety.

Nothing demonstrates Alberta’s city-country divide quite like peoples’ attitudes to cougars.

A cougar was recently shot and killed in a busy Calgary location because the conservation officers considered tranquilizing the big cat could pose a serious threat to public safety.

Well! The city folk filled newspaper letter columns with cougar-hugger outrage. One woman ended her letter in the Calgary Herald with this: “How many more will be shot and killed?”

Answer from this city-country boy? Not nearly enough to keep cougars from being pushed into cities in the first place.

Make no mistake, this cat was scoping out the place for something to eat, preferably something smaller than itself, someone’s pet perhaps, a dog, a housecat or, God forbid, a human child, as has already happened in too many other North American jurisdictions that also have far too many cougars.

Fifty year ago, seeing a cougar in the wild was extremely rare.

But all that changed when, in 1971, Alberta converted the status of the cougar from fur-bearing carnivore to a “big game species” and imposed strict quotas, registration of kills, and seasons that ended when quotas were reached.

All this was done without anyone knowing how many of the big cats we had in Alberta, just the longtime guess of “fewer than 700,” that persisted until 2008.

Now cougars are frequently sighted in eastern Alberta, far from their usual mountain-foothill habitats. Despite having been studied endlessly over the last 40 years, the experts still don’t know how many cougars we now have, but people who try to survive living in cougar country know: far too many increasingly brazen big cats.

According to Alberta Justice (out of which conservation officers now work), 337 cougar “incidents” had been reported up to the end of July, on track for the 612 reported in 2013 and the 840 in 2012. In 45 years, we have come from being rare ever to see a cougar in prime cougar country to routine to see them all over Alberta.

At the very best and least, these are just sightings. At worst, some are attacks on pets and livestock, and threatening behaviour toward humans. Many cougar “incidents” are not reported. Many people in the vicinity of my Stump Ranch install trail cameras to give early warning of the presence of cougars on game trails on their land and heed worry whines from their dogs.

Several times this year, I have been told in confidence of a cougar inevitably showing up and stalking the dog or dogs.

Then, sorely beset cougar country people do not bother calling for a conservation officer armed with tranquilizer darts: in the words of the late Ralph on marauding grizzlies, they shoot, shovel and shut up.

This situation is not fair, either to the big cats or to human inhabitants of true cougar country.

The situation in B.C. is even worse than here, and the government there recently announced far greater cougar hunting opportunities. That alone will not be enough to stem the killer cougar tide.

What is needed is a reversal of the formerly fashionable management error that has caused the overpopulation of cougars everywhere in western North America.

The designation of the cougar as a big game species must be revoked and its former status as a fur-bearing carnivore, maybe even a “varmint,” restored. That way their behaviour, maybe even their numbers, might be improved by being shot at, on sight, by anyone, any time.

I am reliably informed that Premier Jim Prentice is deeply concerned by the damage being done to farmers and ranchers by the huge herds of elk resulting from the mindless federal introduction of the species several years ago to Canadian Forces Base Suffield. While Alberta, for the first time in its history, is a dictatorship, with an unelected, self-proclaimed premier without qualms about reversing decisions of an elected government, the incumbent, Chairman Prentice himself, should decree a huge bag limit on those marauding Suffield elk and throw in the return of the cougar to varmint status for good measure.

The categories of wildlife mismanagement in Alberta, federal or provincial, seem never to close.

The Parks Canada pipedream of introducing bison to Banff National Park raised its shaggy head again late this summer and, just a few days later, Yellowstone National Park announced it will recommend removal — mostly by hunting — of 900 head, 19 per cent of the U.S. park’s herd of 4,900 bison.

Bison have a high survival rate in Yellowstone, with little wolf predation, and can quickly over-fill available habitat, thus pressuring other species, such as elk, for food and also spreading diseases to livestock outside the park.

Not to mention that the bison cause more human injury and death in Yellowstone than its numerous grizzlies do.

Anyone listening, Parks Canada bison-for-Banff pipe dreamers?

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at bscam@telusplanet.net.

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