Cougar Turf

Fatal animal attacks are rare, but with a recent spike in cougar maulings, a plan is needed as urban sprawl threatens the habitat of predators

By Tiffany Crawford
CanWest News Service
July 14, 2009

OTTAWA — Fatal attacks on humans by animals with big, sharp teeth are rare in Canada despite a recent spike in cougar maulings, but a sustainable plan is needed as urban sprawl threatens the habitat of predators, say conservation experts.In one recent wild animal mauling, a British Columbia woman and her two sons — aged five and seven — were walking through a park in Quesnel, B.C., on July 4, when a cougar jumped out of the forest and attacked the older boy. The boy suffered scratches to his face and back and required stitches.

He was lucky. Conservation officers say it’s very rare that a cougar would leave once it was focused on its prey.

Some experts say the animals are losing their fear of humans, causing them to see humans as prey. Others insist the increase in human-predator interaction has more to do with human encroachment into their habitat, and the animals are likely protecting their territory, rather than stalking people for a human snack.

“There are more people recreating outdoors than ever before, whether mountain running or skiing, and eventually humans are going to come in contact with large predators and carnivores, more than in the past,” said Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Conservation officer Michael Krause said the latest mauling was the first reported incident in the area 650 kilometres north of Vancouver at least 25 years.

A cougar pounced on a three-year-old girl who was out for a walk on the evening of June 16 with her mother in their Squamish, B.C., neighbourhood,about one hour outside Vancouver. She was taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries and also received stitches.

The cougar — also known as mountain lion — has become a potent symbol of the conflicts between humans and nature in Canada. The sleek, tawny cat with razor sharp claws can sprint at 56 kilometres per hour and can leap nine metres forward, or jump five metres straight up, to attack its prey. In Canada, they are the most abundant in northern B.C.

But, it’s not just the cougar that is becoming more of a threat. Other predators such as wolves, bears and coyotes have also been making more contact, often resulting in human injury.

A 15-year-old boy mauled in May near Edmonton was the victim of a predatory bear attack and conservationists said the bear likely did view the boy as food.

And in one particularly gruesome incident in 2008, 53-year-old Brent Case described how he felt a grizzly bear eating the back of his head as he was mauled in Bella Coola, B.C., about 700 kilometres north of Vancouver.

The problem is a human one rather than a predator problem, said Jake Goheen,assistant professor of zoology at the University of B.C. He believes predators may be becoming more accustomed to humans, but it’s unlikely they’ve changed their hunting behaviour.

“People are coming into contact with these species more often than they have historically, as a lot of people want to move into scenic areas. And the things that attract people to these areas — woods, clean air, songbirds and so forth — those things go hand in hand with predators.”

Also, he said people are moving into the wild and bringing their pets with them, which can attract predators.

“Dogs and cats — those are tasty tidbits for creatures,” he said. “But(attacking a person) is not necessarily a shift in the animal’s behaviour,it’s a shift in a number of humans in their spaces.”

Fragmentation of predator habitat because of urban sprawl must be considered when creating a sustainable land use plan, says Genovali. He said Squamish is a good example of what is “going wrong” with development.

Squamish, on the route to Whistler, B.C., has seen a lot of construction,including a $1 billion upgrade to the Sea to Sky Highway for the 2010 Olympics and a plan to build a new ski resort. Genovali feels there’s been no serious consultation about what to do about the wildlife habitat.

Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner said city officials have done some mapping of wildlife habitat but there are currently no wildlife corridors, which are large swaths of land banned to humans to allow the safe movement of predatory animals.

“Wildlife corridors would be essential if they go ahead with the ski resort,” said Genovali. “Keeping humans from those corridors would also be critical.”

One of the lead researchers on the first approved wildlife corridor in Banff in 1993, Paul Paquet said the wildlife corridors in the Rocky Mountains have been a success, and even encouraged the repopulation of wolves in that area.

For example, Banff’s Middle Springs wildlife closure is a 500-metre wide band of forest and is legally closed to people to help large carnivores move across the Bow Valley, and around the town of Banff.

“Humans and predators can coexist and it’s never going to be perfect but that’s why you have to become more tolerant and understanding that conflicts can occur and try to reduce the impact,” said Paquet, an environmental scientist with the University of Calgary.

There have been at least 12 fatalities from bear maulings in Canada since 2000. Coyote attacks have been on the rise in Eastern Canada but there are no known fatalities. Death by cougar remains relatively rare in Canada.

In 2001, 30-year-old Frances Frost was skiing on the Cascade Trail, 12 kilometres from Banff, Alta., when she was killed by a cougar. Authorities believe the cat had stalked the woman as prey.

In 1996, Cindy Parolin was killed while defending her young son who had been knocked off a horse by a cougar in Princeton, 250 kilometres east of Vancouver.

A cougar also killed an eight-year-old boy in 1992 in a schoolyard in Kyuquot, B.C., on the northwest side of Vancouver Island.

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