Time to take back the woods

Near the end of her book, Paula Wild confesses: “I made one mistake while researching this book and it was a big one.

The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous

By Paula Wild

Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd. hard cover, 288 pages, $34.95

Near the end of her book, Paula Wild confesses: “I made one mistake while researching this book and it was a big one. I read every cougar attack description I could find over the course of two days. For the next week I flinched whenever Bailey (her dog) entered the room and disturbing dreams interrupted my sleep. I wondered if I’d ever be able to walk in the woods again. Then one day I did.”

That is also my reaction, having read, also over two days, most of those horrible, agonizing, cougar attack descriptions repeated in this latest, and probably the best of books on North America’s cougar crisis, especially on Vancouver Island, the cougar capital of North America, where the author lives.

But I had probably already developed a cougar flinch from reading and reviewing the 2001 book Cat Attacks: True Stories and Hard Lessons From Cougar Country, by Jo Deurbrouck and Dean Miller.

Actually, my flinch started in the early to mid-1980s, when all of Alberta started being “cougar country,” and I was seeing more cougars and cougar sign in the vicinity of my Stump Ranch in the Rocky Mountain House area than I had seen in the previous three decades. Since 2000, I have been stalked three times by cougars out there, and half a dozen times seen their tracks on cabin and house decks.

Wild notes that the North American increase in cougar populations started with the trendy management “tool” of changing the status of the big cats from varmints, which could be shot on sight, to big game animals and imposing draconian protective regulations, seasons and quotas.

In 1971, Alberta, for example, made that egregious management error when nobody even knew how many cougars we already had, although the government “guess” was 800.

Now, in Alberta, biologists love to “study” the more numerous big cats, but, still, nobody knows how many cougars we have, although Wild’s book says the 2012 Alberta “guesstimate” was 2,000.

“The truth,” Wild writes, “is no one even knows how many cougars live in any state or province.” Cougars are stealthy, quiet, superb “hiders,” thus difficult to count. Several times in her book, Wild repeats this: “If you spend any time in the woods, chances are a cougar had seen you while you’ve been totally oblivious of its presence.”

Overwhelmingly, Wild’s many attack stories prove that too many cougars have now totally lost their fear of humans, regard us as prey, and the attacks are almost never defensive, as most bear attacks are, but predatory.

Chillingly, again, Wild quotes Rick James, author and field archaeologist: “Children are magnets for cougars.”

Flinching can be a good thing, and Wild’s book should be mandatory required reading for anyone who lives, works or recreates in cougar country, which now includes all of Alberta, particularly the chapters: Keeping Safe in Cougar Country, Children, Dogs & Cougars, and the Appendix: Cougar Safety Checklist.

This is the first of the considerable cougar literature I have read flat-out to advise carrying bear spray for cougars, and a fixed blade knife, both close to hand, also whistles and air horns, because cougars do not like loud noises.

By now it should be obvious that I detest cougars and do not consider them beautiful, but a great pleasure of this fine and flinch-inducing book is the lavish illustration, particularly the 15 pages of colour photographs. A particular favourite is Brent Sinclair’s image of two of his hounds baying a cougar on a cliff precipice in Waterton National Park. Brent kennels his hounds the next place down Pincher Creek from Herself’s family’s ranch. Another favourite is Tom Ulrich’s rare image of a cougar catching a trout.

Ultimately, this cougar book, like all of them, fails to answer the why and when questions.

Why do our wildlife managers insist on overprotecting a dangerous predator that has overrun its range and now shows little fear of humans, regarding them, and particularly children, as prey?

When do we simply have too many cougars that put human safety seriously at risk?

Frankly, carrying all manner of “stuff” to co-exist with too-many cougars, just to take a walk in the woods, carries little appeal. Why can’t my grandchildren play in the woods near my cabin like my children did, without an armed guard of flinching adults always on duty?

It is time to take back the woods.

Pending official answers and action, wise humans in today’s woods will do as our pioneers did: carry a firearm they know how to use. Cougars don’t like loud noise? At first sight of one of these big cats, give it the big boom of one shot across the bow, and if that doesn’t scare it off, then shoot to kill a known killer.

That should do it until our wildlife managers and politicians wake up and return these stone-cold killers to the list of seldom-seen varmints, where they belong.

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