Big cats on the prowl

Cougars are B.C.’s neglected carnivores

Monday Magazine
By Chris Genovali
July 02, 2009

The recent cougar attack in Squamish has brought to the fore the significant gaps in the management of these top-level predators. At present, the B.C. government does not have sufficient ecological data on cougars or a comprehensive cougar-management strategy.

A preliminary B.C. cougar-management plan drafted in 1980 discussed habitat issues and cautioned that provincial cougar populations would likely fall in the near future as a result of habitat loss and prey population decline. It recommended that cougar conservation could be ensured via the protection of
cougar and prey habitat-advice that the provincial government has yet to take almost 30 years later.

Contained within some news reports has been the statement that “B.C. is home to about 4,000 to 6,000 cougars.” There is no sound scientific basis for such a population estimate; in fact, there is no reliable and inexpensive method to continuously assess our cougar numbers. And there is also little or no effort made by the province to study B.C.’s cougars.

According to Raincoast Conservation’s senior scientist, large carnivore expert Dr. Paul Paquet, “the distribution of cougars was once the largest of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. However, the historic North American range has been reduced by 50 percent. Three subspecies are found in western Canada: the Vancouver Island cougar, the Coastal cougar and the Rocky Mountains cougar.  Owing to extirpation elsewhere, B.C. harbours most of the remaining cougar population in Canada.”

Deer on Vancouver Island have dropped from 200,000 to somewhere in the 55,000 range in the last 20 years. A major factor behind the decline is the loss of old-growth forest, which is important habitat for Blacktail deer-the main prey species for cougars. Out of 91 primary watersheds over 5,000 hectares, only six are left intact; not one watershed on eastern Vancouver Island remains intact or is protected-and 75 percent of the Island’s productive ancient forests have been logged. As prey decreases, so do its predators: the Ministry of Environment estimates that Vancouver Island’s cougar population has fallen from approximately 750 in 1995 to around 350 at this time.

It has been confounding to read the comments of a provincial conservation officer dismissing the impacts from development to cougar and prey habitat in terms of having any role in the upsurge in sightings and cougar-human interactions. Even the mother of the toddler who experienced the cougar encounter in Squamish agrees that rampant development is at the root of increasing conflicts with the big cats.

Cougars require habitat for prey availability, hunting and feeding cover, as well as nurseries and bedding sites. Leading cougar researchers Ken Logan and Linda Sweanor have written that habitat loss due to human development isthe single greatest threat to cougar conservation in North America.

Logan and Sweanor point out that there are more people living in cougar habitat than ever before. Greater human development contributes to smaller, more fragmented cougar populations, increasing the risk of extirpation and increasing the chances of potentially negative cougar-human interactions as more people recreate outdoors than ever before.

According to the Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group, high densities of humans, roads and development decrease habitat quality for cougars by increasing the potential for depredation incidents involving pets and making more likely the implementation of policies favouring the removal of cougars to reduce the potential for attacks on humans. Clearly, this is the case in B.C. where continuing encroachment on wildlife habitat has lead to a predominantly “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” method of large carnivore management.

In B.C., cougars face imminent threats from the direct killing of the species. For example, trophy hunting of cougars throughout the province continues unabated, without even the pretense of scientific management. The government has also promoted lethal predator control in connection with endangered Vancouver Island marmots. Currently, cougars are being killed in an effort to promote mountain caribou recovery. It now appears they are being increasingly targeted for removal because of potential conflicts with suburban sprawl.

Predator control has negative effects on individual cougars, cougar populations, kittens, prey, and entire ecosystems. Any contemplation of cougar control should include the understanding that ecosystems are extremely complex and that reliable scientific data is generally limited.

Based on our review of cougar ecology, research and management in B.C. and elsewhere, Raincoast Conservation will be publishing a report later this year that will provide a comprehensive assessment and framework for a science-based cougar conservation plan. Current provincial management policies, which depend solely on hunting regulations, are inadequate to protect cougar populations and their habitat in the long term.

Chris Genovali is the Executive Director of Raincoast Conservation.

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