With mountain lions moving increasingly eastward onto the prairie, a few precautions can safeguard livestock, pets and young children, say experts.
One night last spring, a cougar the size of a German shepherd made her way through Pincher Creek, aiming to snag a couple of easy meals. The cat made her way from her mountainous haunt, padded along the poplar-lined stream that cuts through the middle of town, and dined on a beaver and a Canada goose several miles east of Pincher s darkened homes. Six nights later, she returned to the mountains the same way she came.
Her movements were followed by University of Alberta biology student Jeremy Banfield, who uses satellite and conventional transmitters to track Alberta s biggest cats. It s part of a two-year study that will identify where southern Alberta mountain lions hang out and what they eat.
Using collared animals with small receivers, Banfield can pinpoint his subjects and trace their movements in 15-minute increments.
There s no doubt cougars are moving east, out of the foothills along creek and river bottoms, says Banfield, who is studying the big cats in preparation for his master s thesis. They re learning what type of habitat to use and what to avoid.
The collared cougar in this case, as with the 11 others Banfield and his team have been studying, avoid people and domestic animals. Banfield, under the guidance of Prof. Mark Boyce, is zeroing in on cat diets and movements between Crowsnest Pass and Waterton Park. Using a GPS satellite relay, Banfield can determine when and where a kill has been made. Depending on the size of the ambushed animal, a cougar can spend upwards of four days feeding on the carcass, transmitting a tight cluster of locations. To date, the dozen cats, who were tranquilized and collared after being treed by hounds, show a knack for being adaptive and opportunistic.
Cougars often get a bum rap, especially when it comes to killing livestock, says Jan Allen, a retired Pincher Creek wildlife officer.
Cats never caused us nearly the problems bears did, says Allen, who specialized in problem predators. We spent 50, maybe 100 times, more (time) chasing bears than cats, he adds. Cougars like the taste of deer, and there are plenty of deer around so they stick with them. Bears on the other hand will eat darned near anything.
There are exceptions. A Crowsnest cougar three winters ago fattened up almost solely on barn cats and dogs.
Cougars learn how easy it is, and that s that, says Allen of the lion that consumed more than 60 house cats and three dogs before being shot on a front porch by an upset pet owner.
The best way to protect potential cougar targets is to enclose them at night, keep garage and barn doors closed, and ensure tall grass and shrubs are trimmed well back from areas where pets play and domestic livestock graze, biologists say. Cougars usually shy away from open areas and rely on thick vegetation to launch quick attacks. Chasing deer away from rural properties also lessens the chance of cougar encounters.
Cougars expanding their range eastward is nothing new, Allen says.
Hell, they ve been seen in Fort Macleod, Medicine Hat and the Cypress Hills, anywhere they can move under the cover of a river bottom.
He speculates cougars regularly slip through both small and large Prairie towns.
Banfield s study tracked a female with half-grown kittens, who fed for four days in May on a deer carcass right next to a business in the hamlet of Beaver Mines.
And no one even knew they were here, notes Banfield while crouching over the deer s scattered remains. Commercial and residential buildings, as well as a well-travelled road are visible nearby.
His study indicates cougars here prefer deer 72 per cent of the time, followed by moose, at nine per cent, and then beaver, elk, mountain sheep and goat, porcupine and birds in descending order. One coyote and one fox were also eaten, probably because they lingered over scraps.
Cougars can be possessive of kills, but are chased off carcasses by wolves and bears, which is one reason Banfield totes pepper-spray when he approaches a kill site.
We usually give the scavengers a day or two to pick things over, but you can never be sure of what you ll find, he says. Sometimes it s another cat or an irate bear. I only had to spray one of them.
Nearly 200 kill sites were pinpointed and interpreted during this study.
For sure these cats depend on lowlands, especially in winter, says Banfield. They go where the cover is and where there are deer. The Oldman River valley is a prime example. Cougars may zip across the prairie but they don t stay there long& they look for cover.
The study won t produce estimates on regional cougar populations. That type of study would require far more tracking subjects and field time.
We do know the number of cougars in the foothills and mountains of this area is healthy. Real healthy, he says. There are a lot of cats out there.