Bill Watkins, a zoologist with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, gets the calls every year. Has the Manitoba government reintroduced cougars to control the deer population?
The answer is no, but Watkins says it’s probably only a matter of time before these solitary, animals re-establish themselves in the province.
“I suspect it’s a simple case of more reports of sightings in an area and people wonder how these animals came to be there and they start conspiracy theories rather than the simple fact that the population in North Dakota is expanding and we’re probably getting some dispersing juveniles crossing the border into Manitoba,” he said in an interview.
“Given how widely they travel how would we ever keep them in one place?”
The only animals reintroduced by the province have been birds, including the burrowing owl, Watkins said.
However, cougars, the second-heaviest cats in the Western Hemisphere, according to Wikipedia, were native to Manitoba before European settlement. With confirmed sightings so rare — only three dead cougars have been turned into Conservation since 2004 — Watkins believes those spotted are just passing through.
South Dakota has an estimated 200 cougars and there’s a breeding population in North Dakota too. It’s likely the odd North Dakota-born cougar crosses into Manitoba following river valleys such as the Souris and Pembina, Watkins said.
“I think we are on the edge of establishing a population (here),” he added. “It’s just a question of time when a young male meets a young female and nature takes its course.”
Cougars, which are protected in Manitoba, have the greatest range of any large wild land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, according to Wikipedia, extending from the Yukon to the southern Andes of South America.
Even if cougars become a permanent part of the Manitoba environment, there will be very few spread over many acres, Watkins said.
“Although large, the cougar is most closely related to smaller felines and is closer genetically to the domestic cat than to true lions,” according to Wikipedia.
Perhaps that explains why sometimes cougar sightings turn out to be, Felis catus — the common house cat. That was the case last year in Altona where a school was locked down when a cat was mistaken for a cougar.
The sightings triggered “cougar panic.” The local police department received so many calls it asked Watkins to speak publicly about cougars. More than 100 people showed up.
“People need to become reacquainted with nature so they don’t mistake a house cat for a cougar or a raccoon,” he said.
Watkins hears about 30 to 60 cougar sightings a year. About 90 per cent aren’t cougars. Sometimes they’re cats, dogs, raccoons, or in one case, a whitetail deer. But Watkins still wants people to call Conservation if they think they’ve seen a cougar. It’s the only way to get data on the stealthy cat.
Four years ago there were confirmed sightings at Plum Coulee and Lee River. If you do see a cougar, count yourself lucky. “I’d be envious because I’ve never seen one in Manitoba,” Watkins said. Most sightings are over in seconds but if your paths cross for longer don’t panic.
“Move away from the animal slowly but don’t take your eyes off it,” Watkins said. “They are ambush hunters and if they know you are watching them they tend not to attack. Don’t run. That’s what prey does. If you run it might elicit a chase response.”
Stand tall, look big and throw a branch or rock at the animal. If it does attack fight as hard as you can.
“Cougars, again being ambush hunters, tend to break off an attack if there’s rigourous resistance,” Watkins said. “And the reason for that is if they’re injured they starve to death. They want a quick and easy kill, they don’t want a fight.”
A 78-year-old woman in California, armed with just a ballpoint pen from her purse, drove off a cougar attacking her 82-year-old husband. There are about two cougar attacks in North America every three years. You’re more likely to be killed by man’s best friend.
“In the United States there were 34 people killed by pet dogs in 2010 and there were 4.7 million people who were bitten by dogs,” he said. Livestock killings are rare too. Wolves, coyotes and black bears take more farm animals than cougars.
“We’ve never had an attack on a human by a cougar in Manitoba,” Watkins said. “All the places where attacks have occurred have very high cougar populations and where people are pressing into the back country. The likelihood of encountering a cougar in Manitoba is extremely rare. We know with only four dead cougars turned in, in 39 years, that doesn’t suggest a very large population.”