Cougars in our back yards; or are we in theirs?

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

The range of the cougar is expanding. There seems little argument about that.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that its numbers are expanding across its range in western Canada. This appears to be in direct response to the influx of the whitetail deer – a phenomenon of the past few decades.

Whatever it is, oldtimers note that when they were younger, there were fewer deer and cougar were thought of as being creatures of the mountains. But now they are all over. One was spotted in the Gloryland neighbourhood of Slave Lake last week. A week earlier, somebody saw one in the Widewater area. These are just the latest reports.

According to most sources, the primary diet of the cougar is deer. It mainly hunts from dusk to dawn, by stalking and ambush. But it will take whatever it can get – anything from insects up to a bull moose.

Or a donkey in a farm yard, as one resident of Assineau found out a few years ago. This was reported in The Leader. Russell Gadbois’ donkey had been attacked once, and he figured the big cat would come back to finish the job. It did, and he shot it.

Another story came from former M.D. of Lesser Slave River CAO Allan Winarski. He told The Leader his daughter was out for a walk in a Widewater hayfield and came across a cougar relaxing on top of a round bale!

What we haven’t heard are any stories of people being attacked by the big cats in this area. Such things do happen, though. Occasionally a report of a cougar attacking a human comes out of B.C. So far, so lucky in our part of Alberta – although there could be incidents we have not heard of.

An article on the cougar in the National Post in 2018 said there has only been one documented cougar killing of a human in Alberta. That was Frances Frost, near Banff, in 2001.

Only 27 fatal attacks have been recorded in North America in the past 100 years.

Regional wildlife biologist Fauve Blanchard is reluctant to concede that cougars are more numerous or widespread than previously.

“They’ve always been there,” she says, adding that mostly, we don’t see them.

Further, Blanchard calls the notion that cougars drop out of trees onto their prey “a big myth.” They do climb trees, she says, but stalk their prey on the ground. Given that the prey can be a household pet, she advises clearing brush and mowing grass in yards that are adjacent to forest. The big cats tend not to come out into the open if they can avoid it.

In general, says Blanchard, the presence of cougars is a good thing.

“It’s a good sign of a healthy ecosystem,” she says.

If you see a cougar in a place it shouldn’t be, or behaving dangerously, the thing to do is call the Report A Poacher hotline, Blanchard says. That’s 1-800-642-3800.

Andy Davison manhandles a dead cougar off the back of a pickup at the Slave Lake Fish & Wildlife office in this photo from The Leader’s files back in the 1990s.

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One thought on “Cougars in our back yards; or are we in theirs?

  1. I saw a cougar this past summer just on the hill behind the car wash. I went for a run and I decided to take that big hill. When I saw the cougar I bend down. At that time, I thought he didn’t see me. I ran down as fast as I could (my mistake). It has been my best pace ever. Some experienced runners said that the cougar saw me before I was able to see him. He was just not interested in me.

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