Alberta Fish and Wildlife is warning West Country property owners who feed deer that they may be attracting cougars, which are out in unusually high numbers.
Over the last six months, three to five cougar sighting calls a week are coming into the Sundre office, said Fish and Wildlife officer Adam Mirus on Wednesday.
“I think we’re up 70 per cent or so from what we normally get.”
Two family dogs on rural properties outside of Sundre have been killed by cougars and there have been numerous sightings by residents or that have been picked up by trail cameras.
“It’s common to have cats come through towns, whether its Didsbury, Sundre or wherever — that just happens,” said Mirus.
“So it’s not out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary is the number of times it’s happening now.”
Fish and Wildlife officers have had to shoot about a dozen problem cougars in the West Country over the past year.
The spike in cougar populations is directly tied to an increase in the deer population.
Cougars mate when conditions are good for them, with ample food supplies and shelter.
“We’ve had high deer numbers in the last few years. And when the deer numbers are high, you’re going to get stronger numbers of predators.”
Last winter’s deep snow also led deer to easier-to-travel and safer-from-predator routes such as roads and other trails closer to populated areas. And the cougars followed the food source.
If a cougar sighting is fresh, officers can try to chase the cougar back into the bush using hounds, or kill them if they pose a risk.
For older sightings, officers will advise residents on the best way to reduce their risks and avoid attracting them.
It’s common in the West Country for people to set up hay bales or salt licks to attract deer.
“People like having them come into their yards, right. What that does, though, is set up a pattern for wildlife and cougars are quick to pick up on that type of pattern.
“They’re like Mother Nature’s sniper. They get really good at doing what they do.
“And their main diet, of course, being deer, if they pick up on a pattern they’ll get on that right away.”
Mirus said property owners who want to feed deer should do it in an area away from homes and populations.
Children in rural areas should be careful of wandering alone in places where cougars may be prowling.
A number of measures are in place to control populations. Wildlife biologists monitor cougar numbers every year and determine hunting quotas.
A hunting season for cougars opened at the beginning of December in most West Country areas. Almost 90 cougars have been taken of this year’s quota of 116 animals in 32 cougar management areas running along the west side of the province.
Several years ago, due to rising cougar populations and associated problems, the province gave landowners the right to shoot cougars on their land at any time of year.
While most urban dwellers will likely never see a cougar, they are not uncommon in Alberta’s wilds.
As an example, according to government records, 237 cougars were reported dead between April 2012 and the end of March 2013. Of those, 139 were hunted, 35 accidentally caught in traps, 38 were shot by landowners, five were shot as problem animals and 20 died from other causes.
Cougar sighting reports can be found at www.mountainviewbearsmart.com, a website that has valuable information on how to react to wildlife encounters.
For instance, a Jan. 30 posting says five cougars were spotted in the previous month in the Westward Ho area near Sundre.