By Robert J. Galbraith for the Montreal Gazette August 2011

eastern-cougar-extinct-restablished-quebec-canadaIn 1938, Quebec’s last known cougar was shot by a hunter near the Maine border. Or so it was thought at the time.

This summer, a cougar was seen attacking and seriously scarring a horse near Lake Brome — and there have been numerous other sightings in recent years.

Now scientists have confirmed the big cats are back and are studying their tracks to find out as much as possible about their wanderings and numbers.

“There may be dozens of cougars out there, we just don’t know yet, but we do know for sure that there are cougars out there,” explained François-Joseph Lapointe, a genetics research professor at the Université de Montréal’s biological sciences department.

Eastern Canada once had a population of cougars (also referred to as mountain lions) that inhabited a vast region, stretching from Ontario to the Maritimes. According wildlife researchers, an animal had not been seen in at least 60 years. This led them to believe that by the 1980’s the cat was either extinct or close to it.

In the end, the cougars’ demise was largely due to deforestation, human incursion and the cash bounty placed on their heads. They were considered vermin and a threat to livestock, public safety and they competed for the same game as humans.          

eastern-cougar-extinct-restablished-quebec-canada-reintroducedBased on a study that began in 2001, researchers have verified the presence of at least 15 cougars in the province, using DNA analysis of hair samples and other evidence collected near locations where cougar have been seen. Of those 15 confirmations, 2 cougar were hit and killed by vehicles with a sample of hair and blood collected by wildlife officials. Another was mistakenly shot and another attacked a horse while the owner was readying to feed it.

Their presence has been confirmed in nearly all regions of Quebec; particularly in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Saguenay Lac-St. Jean, Gaspé, Bas St. Laurent and the Eastern Townships, less than an hour’s drive southeast of Montreal.

“Since our research began,” Lapointe said, “we have been hoping to gain an insight into the status of the animal, including a better grasp of its numbers, its range and perhaps most importantly, whether they are reproducing.” He also explained that it is important to get an understanding of the cougar’s habits to better judge any future decisions concerning their preservation, or in possible conflicts that may arise.

cougar-rubbing-posts-quebec-urine-Velcro-pheromonesWildlife technicians have been studying the elusive felines by installing six-foot-tall cougar bait posts in various locations across the province where the cats have been reported. Once a month, each of the posts are saturated in female cougar urine, collected from captive cougars. At one point 60 posts were in use but now only 13 are used in the most productive areas.         

Any cougar that passes near the baited post can’t resist the pheromones released by the urine. It induces them to rub against the Velcro-covered post, hopefully leaving behind a few hairs for DNA analysis. “It’s the pheromones in the urine that attract both male and female cougars to the post. As they pass by it or rub up against it, some of their hair can stick to the Velcro covering and any samples are collected monthly by researchers and sent to us at the Université de Montréal for DNA analysis,” Lapointe said.

The bait posts were designed by Marc Gauthier, director of special projects for the engineering consulting firm Genivar Inc. “We put out the first three posts in 2001 in the Sutton Mountain area and 10 posts in the Gaspé region, some hundreds of kilometres apart. A couple of years later, we received DNA confirmation that the hairs we collected in both sample regions were cougar hair,” explained Gauthier.

“Some of these may be from the same area and may be the same animal, but the samples are so wide ranging that they can’t be one animal.” At this point, it is not possible to confirm individual cougar identity through DNA sampling. That capability has yet to be developed.

cougar-rubbing-posts-quebec-urine-Velcro-pheromones-sutton-hair-samples“There are now maybe 10 bait posts remaining in the study, including three near Sutton Mountain,” Gauthier said. “We are focusing more on the Eastern Townships region because of the large number of sightings there and its proximity to populated areas. There are lots of people who live there that have seen them. The recent attack on the horse in South Stukely is also a factor.”

So why is the cougar returning to its former haunts? According to Gauthier, there are two main reasons. “Their main prey is deer and deer have been increasing in numbers for last 30 years because of good winters with lots of food for them. Secondly, a lot of formerly cleared forest has been growing back, providing huge regions of cover for the cougar. So you have their prey increasing and their habitat expanding. These two situations make a good environment for the survival and expansion of cougar numbers.”

But these aren’t the only reasons cougars are being seen. In some parts of North America, cougars and other large cats such as lions are legally permitted to be owned as pets. “Sometimes the owners don’t declare them if they are lost or escape. Sometimes, as the cat grows to adulthood, they are just too difficult to handle, so the owners release them near a forest to get rid of them,” explained the researcher.

cougar-quebec-dna-sampleDNA evidence has indicated that the cougars identified in the study areas are mostly a mix of the southern and western subspecies of cougar, probably from released or escaped animals. Though not proven yet, Lapointe believes there is a possibility that some of these animals could be the offspring of released or escaped cougars that have successfully mated in the wild.  

The researchers agree that considering the eastern subspecies hasn’t been seen in 60 years, it appears unlikely that any of this strain has survived. But nature can be full of surprises.

“We can’t say for sure whether we have a viable population of cougar to protect,” Lapointe said. “We are still trying to figure this out. If we want to protect the species we need to get a better idea of how many are out there. We want to know the true picture.”

 Sidebar

cougar-horse-attack-quebec-lac-brome-clawedThe average weights for adult male and female cougars are 155 pounds and 92 pounds, respectively. The total body length of the larger male can reach more than six feet, with the tail being three-feet long itself. Its fur colour ranges from tawny to dark brown. It goes by many names, including ghost of the woods, puma, catamount, mountain lion, mountain cat, ghost walker, deer tiger, Indian devil, panther, night crier and swamp devil.

 cougar-horse-attack-quebec-lac-brome-mauled-clawsAccording to the Ministry of the Environment for British Columbia website, if you happen to come face to face with a cougar, don’t run – this may trigger an attack. Playing dead won’t work, either. Keep eye contact with the animal and speak in a loud and authoritative voice while slowly backing away. If you are wearing a jacket or shirt, spread it open to make yourself look larger. Pull your children up into your arms. If it does attack, protect yourself by punching and kicking it and hitting it with anything close by that you can grab.

 Cougar links:

http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/cougsf.htm

www.apcor.ca  (Appalachian Corridor Appalachien).

http://www.hww.ca/hww2.asp?id=87