A cougar that attacked and killed numerous sheep on a rancher's farm southwest of Cochrane a couple of weeks ago certainly attracted a lot of media attention and questions.
The January 21st incident ended with the euthanization of a cougar after it was determined the male wild cat was responsible for the death/injury of 38 sheep after it made its way into a sheep enclosure on the rancher's land.
Jay Honeyman, Alberta Environment and Parks, Human-Wildlife Conflict Biologist, says, unfortunately, a cougar's role in this world is to make a living and how they do this is by killing things to eat. "They are a predator, and they kill things to survive, and that is just what they do. The interesting piece here is that they are killing livestock rather than wildlife and I think that is the piece that people are interested in."
Cougar sitings are not unusual for our area, shares Honeyman. If there are no negative consequences for them to find shelter on an acreage, farm or even an urban area they start to settle in overtime because as opportunistic hunters, cougars will start to develop an appetite for rabbits, pets, and livestock if that is what is available to them. "If they are able to take one, and are successful, they've got that imprinted. Cougars are often very prey specific, and so the concern is that when they start to take domestic sheep they will start keying in on domestic sheep more and more, and that is where we start to have problems. That is where we want to get on it and not allow it to continue, because it could."
The best way residents can protect themselves is by not giving the cougar a reason to want to set up a homestead on your property. "It will often come down to food and security. A lot of incidents tend to happen between dusk to dawn when it is quite quiet, and we are all sleeping, so if you have sheep and can put them in at night that will help to secure them from any kind of cougar activity."
Any sort of free roaming livestock, the pet cat or dog, unsecured garbage, bird seed, and a big prey source for cougars sometimes lured onto the human property is deer. "People love to feed deer; they put out salt blocks and bird seed to bring the deer in because they like to watch them and think they are helping, but in doing so they also draw the predators in. Now you've got cougars coming in because of the deer or maybe the deer get away, but they start to notice all the other stuff that is available that they never noticed before in the way of unnatural food sources."
Taking measures to limit food sources as well as hiding spots such as low hanging conifer branches and open spaces under decks and porches will help to prevent an unfavourable incident from occurring. "Doing the kinds of things to discourage animals, like cougars, from being there in the first place will help because there is lots of food out in the forest for them. If cougars are coming around, I think you need to look around and see what the heck they are doing there, and I bet you will find there is some kind of food issue going on."
With deer populations moving eastward, Honeyman predicts residents can continue to see a rise in bear and cougar encounters over time. With humans continuing to domesticate deer by feeding them we are seeing a rise of cougar sitings in areas we wouldn't normally expect to see them. "Cougars are moving into our area, and we are moving into their area, and there is more interaction as a result of that."
Lastly, there is absolutely no benefit to feeding wild animals, and while you may think it doesn't hurt them, it is not at all in their best interest, to begin with. "Let things be wild because if they are in your back yard they are no longer wild, and that becomes a problem for you and the wildlife themselves."
Alberta does have a healthy cougar stock and if you find yourself in conflict with wildlife, you are asked to report the incident to the 24 hours a day Report a Poacher line at 1-800-642-3800.