Has the Cat Come Back?

The last cougar in Ontario was shot at Creemore in 1884. Now, after the passage of more than a century, a modest “re-wilding” is underway. But what of the cougar? Has the cat come back?

September 13, 2010 | | Environment

Within the primeval forest cloaking what we now call Hockley Valley, an elk grazed warily on the lush vegetation of a floodplain meadow. Her senses had been finely honed by thousands of years of predation. She was alert to the scent of wolves and of the people of the First Nations. Her olfactory powers were also cued to the telltale odour of the master stalker of the valley, the cougar.

Cougars, she knew, could meld invisibly into the trees and rock and creep toward her with preternatural silence. She had managed to elude an attack once before. But she knew that another would come and that her vigilance must never waver.

For thousands of years in Ontario, elk and cougars performed a vital dance of prey and predator that ensured the continuance of both. The relationship persisted until a new type of human arrived on the landscape – European settlers with machines to cut the forest and guns to hunt both prey and predator.

The elk were quickly decimated, and, except for a couple of doomed reintroduction efforts in the last century, were soon gone from the province for good. Seemingly the cougars – also known as pumas and mountain lions – were eliminated as well.

The last cougar in Ontario – confirmed in the flesh – was shot at Creemore in 1884.

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  • By that year, nature was in full retreat, not only here in the hills, but throughout North America. Passenger pigeons had been eliminated entirely and other animals were pushed far to the north. Now, after the passage of more than a century, a modest “re-wilding” is underway. Bears and fishers are filtering back. Otters have been spotted again in our area. Turkeys have repopulated their former haunts with vigour. Elk, alas, seem wholly unsuited to the landscape we have created. The nearest populations are now far to the west.

    But what of the cougar?

    Has the cat come back?

    Some say it has. There have been many local sightings reported, but few have been verified. Pam Stewart, proprietor of the Rosemont General Store, offers one of the more credible accounts.

    “In the summer of 2008 I was crossing from field to field on my horse, near the Second Line of Adjala and 20 Sideroad. I saw an animal exit a woodlot and then, when it saw me, run to a nearby hedgerow. My initial thought was ‘dog’ – that is, until it jumped up on the trunk of a tree. It looked back over its shoulder, gave me a double take, and then dropped down and disappeared.”

    Stewart is sure she saw a cougar. Her husband Russ also says he has seen a cougar “three times around the Second Line of Adjala.”

    While sightings have been reported at several locations throughout the hills, the largest number have come from the Hockley valley area. In 2007, Christine Thomas and her husband had a sighting property on the Mono-Adjala Town Line, just north of Hockley Road.

    Last year, Thomas described her experience on this magazine’s website: “We were standing alone on his [their neighbour’s] balcony, enjoying the valley. It was one of those wonderful sunny, warm Thanksgiving Sundays.” Christine saw an animal that she first thought was a house cat. At a glance, her husband identified it as a cougar. Christine looked again and realized her mistake: “It was huge. He sauntered through the backyard, along the top of the hill, then headed back down to the valley.”

    Photo by Robert McCaw

    Another report in 2005 near Airport Road, north of Hockley Valley, described an animal in a tree after dark, “screaming a cat-like growl,” its “very large amber eyes” illuminated by the observer’s flashlight.

    Cougars have been reported crossing roadways in our area and reposing atop hay rounds. Attacks on horses have also been attributed to cougars. Evelyn Hubert of East Garafraxa had three mares attacked on her property in early 2009. As they protected their foals from a predator, their haunches were raked by claws and teeth. “One had very deep puncture wounds that in the vet’s opinion were likely caused by a cougar,” reported Hubert.

    What are we to make of these occurrences? While it would be foolish to dismiss all the numerous local sightings, it also needs to be acknowledged that throughout North America, even where there are healthy cougar populations, the vast majority of cougar sightings are misidentifications.

    Christopher Spatz of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, an American organization “dedicated to the recovery of cougars in wild areas of their former range in eastern and central North America,” has little faith in cougar sightings. He told me, “No matter where you go east of the Mississippi you will find ‘volumes’ of sightings. It’s tough for people to hear, but sightings are the most unreliable indicator of cougar presence. We haven’t received a single confirmation from Nova Scotia to Mississippi via our sightings hotline in eleven years. And we sure wanted to.”

    Spatz’s statement is telling. The Eastern Cougar Foundation very much favours the repopulation of cougars to their former eastern haunts. It very much want sightings to be verified. But until now it has not been able to prove any sightings as reliable.

    Stuart Kenn, president of the Ontario Puma Foundation, founded in 2002 to study cougars in the province, educate the public about them and promote their recovery, is also suspicious of most cougar sightings. He says, “Ninety-five per cent are not real.”

    Still, that statistic leaves 5 per cent breathing room. And Kenn himself includes credible sightings among the criteria on which he bases his estimate of the Ontario cougar population at about 550 animals.

    In fact, Hockley Valley is one region that particularly interests Kenn. “We get reports out of Hockley Valley all the time,” he says. So many that he recently set up cameras north of Hockley Road between the Second and Third Lines in an attempt to photograph a cougar in action.

    However, the fact that the cameras recorded no cougars didn’t surprise him: “The chance of a wide-ranging cougar passing a particular tree with a camera is pretty remote.”

    And Kenn still believes that “there is a resident female in the valley between Hockley Road and 15 Sideroad and between Airport Road and Third Line East in Mono.”

    Why a female? Well, one reason is that the territory is too small for a male. Male cougars typically roam vast territories of up to 1,500 square kilometres or more. Females are more sedentary and, as long as they have adequate prey, 100 square kilometres or so will do. To put this in local context, the rough rectangle bordered by Airport Rd and Highway 10, between Highways 9 and 89, is about 150 square kilometres.

    People who believe there are cougars in Headwaters can point to a recent study by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources that proves their presence in the province.

    According to Jolanta Kowalski, a media relations officer with the ministry, ongoing research by MNR scientist Rick Rosatte has turned up “small amounts of physical evidence (about 30 records), including scat (feces), tracks and DNA [that] confirm the presence of free-ranging cougars in parts of Ontario.”

    The fact that MNR was finally admitting that the big cats are in the province was treated as big news when it broke last June in the Ottawa Citizen. But according to Kowalski, the ministry “has been saying publicly that there is a population of cougars in Ontario at least since 2007.” In addition, the fact that the eastern cougar is classified as endangered in Ontario, and has been since 1971, indicates that MNR has tacitly acknowledged their presence since that time.

    To date, none of MNR’s definitive proof comes from the Headwaters region. The closest accepted evidence of cougars are tracks from Lindsay, just west of Peterborough. MNR’s cougar study will continue at least through next year.

    What Kowalski says she can’t abide is the persistent belief among many residents of Headwaters and beyond that MNR intentionally reintroduced cougars to control the burgeoning deer population. When I pressed her to elaborate on why that would be such a bad idea, she held firm: “I don’t want to legitimize this rumour by commenting further on it. MNR has never released cougars in Ontario.”

    While I can appreciate Kowalski’s frustration, I regret that she didn’t offer a more detailed explanation. It does seems implausible that MNR staff or their political masters would gamble their careers by taking part in such a secret scheme. At the same time, sceptics note that it is equally unlikely that the ministry would risk the scat hitting the fan, as it were, by admitting it had released cougars. So whether it’s a rural legend or not, the widespread rumour is likely to endure.

    Nevertheless, cougars can find their way to us without the help of backroom schemers. According to Kenn, there are three types of cougars in Ontario: native Ontario animals that, contrary to belief, were never entirely wiped out; others released or escaped from captivity; and immigrants from other provinces and states.

    Cougars, especially young males in search of new territory, can move surprisingly long distances. Kenn believes that some of Ontario’s cougars have arrived from Manitoba, Wisconsin and Michigan. He points to the ice bridge linking Michigan and Ontario at Sault Ste. Marie as one probable conduit from the Midwest.

    If there are cougars in the hills, they are likely individuals, not a sustained population.
    Could such a population eventually be established? Possibly. Our hills contain plenty of cougar food. Deer is their staff of life and we have deer aplenty. And local cougars could round out their meals with a wealth of other animals, including turkeys, beavers, racoons and even porcupines. Cougars sometimes include smaller predators in their diet as well. Their presence would have the local coyotes looking over their shoulders.

    As stalkers, cougars seek the cover of trees, shrubs and rocks to cloak their movements. Especially with the increasing forest cover in our region, the very condition that also attracts deer, those local requirements are amply supplied. However, cougars tend to avoid roads and most shun areas of human activity. The roads that network southern Ontario and the pronounced human presence would undoubtedly limit their numbers.

    So, how shall we respond to the possibility that there are cougars among us?

    Ecologists who favour the cougar’s right to return will be pleased. Most people today realize that predators are a necessary component of healthy ecosystems – that they help maintain populations of prey animals, such as deer, at numbers the environment can support. Remove predators and the negative effects cascade throughout the ecosystem. Excessive numbers of herbivores eat too many plants, eventually eating themselves out of house and home and denying that plant life to smaller creatures which are, in turn, dinner for all manner of larger animals.

    However, the real question may be not whether cougars can survive here, but whether we will allow them to survive.

    If earlier Ontarians, much fewer in number and armed with unsophisticated weaponry, were successful in pushing the cougar to the brink, we would have little trouble forcing a resurgent contemporary cougar population back into oblivion.

    But is it possible to coexist?

    In an effort to do just that, California voted to ban sport hunting of cougars in an effort to ensure the survival of cougars in that state.

    The Californian decision was an ethical one: In the west, people are increasingly choosing to move from the cities into cougar territory. People are seen as the interlopers, not the cougars. Here we have a different dynamic. It is not us moving into the cats’ domain, but they into ours (discounting the fact that cougars were here for thousands of years prior to our arrival).

    Do cougars have a right to reclaim the hills? Or do they present an unacceptable threat to our safety and that of our pets, horses and livestock?

    Christopher Spatz notes, “Domestic dogs are implicated in livestock depredations or harassment exponentially more frequently than wild predators, especially with cows and horses. But some people wish to demonize the animals least likely to be there. When cougars do predate livestock, it’s mostly sheep and goats.”

    Ontario currently offers no compensation for domestic stock killed by cougars. Kenn of the Ontario Puma Foundation wants this to change. Owners, he says, “should be granted compensation just as they are for bear, deer and coyote depredation.”

    More visceral than the threat to pets and domestic animals is the perceived threat to ourselves. Just how fearful should we be?

    Not very, it would seem. Cougars do sometimes kill people and those deaths are horrific. However, and I urge sceptics to check this statistic, only twenty-two people have been killed by cougars in all of North America since 1890. There is only one recorded death from the province of Alberta, a place that cougars have shared with a large population of people for decades.

    Photo by Robert McCaw

    By way of comparison, dogs killed an estimated 281 North Americans between the years of 1982 and 2009 alone.

    Spatz of the Eastern Cougar Foundation likes to compare cougar attack statistics with those for deer-vehicle collisions in the United States: “220 people dead, 20,000 seriously injured annually, more than all other wildlife threats to people combined.”

    Death and injury caused by hitting a deer may make the local news. Cougar attacks, however, like airplane crashes, are covered internationally. It could be argued that just as intense media coverage generates an unrealistic fear of flying in some people, it can also create an unrealistic fear of cougars.

    Statistically, even in areas where they are common, cougars are simply not much of a threat. However, that’s cold comfort to the victim of a cougar attack or the relatives of someone who has become a cougar statistic.

    If cougars do eventually repopulate the east, there will be an occasional attack on humans. Although we calculate “acceptable risk” for all manner of things, maybe the cougars’ time has passed. Maybe cougars and other predators capable of killing us, even if this happens only rarely in relation to other dangers, can no longer be tolerated.

    The question to coexist or not may never become a great issue here. The southern Ontario landscape may simply be too developed for any long-lasting cougar presence. An occasional cat may wander through, stirring local imaginations, and then retreat back to the north woods.

    But if cougars have come to stay, we will be the first generation in the hills in more than a century to have them among us. Our forbears banished cougars from their midst. What will we do?

    About the Author More by Don Scallen

    Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".



    1. I recommend that Peter send his tracks to Stuart Kenn at the Ontario Puma Foundation at http://www.ontariopuma.ca/links.htm I’m sure he’s already compared the tracks to the ones pictured in the article. Other examples of cougar tracks are found at http://www.easterncougar.org/Images/tracks.gif.

      Don Scallen on Nov 29, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Reply

    2. This picture (click here) was taken yesterday (Nov. 27, 2010) literally 5 feet outside outside our front door step (Concession Road 3 Adjala-Tosorontio). You can see our 1-year-old (50 lb) greyhound’s print beside it. I have researched this and now suspect it’s the footprint of a cougar. Could you please direct me as to whom I can contact to confirm this?

      Peter Kudlowsky on Nov 29, 2010 at 9:59 am | Reply

    3. Don Scallen replies:

      Cougars do, in fact, regularly prey on elk.

      One of the publications I read as part of my research for “Has the Cat Come Back?” was Cougar Ecology and Conservation edited by Maurice Hornocker and Sharon Negri (The University of Chicago Press, 2010)

      This book is a compilation of articles about the habits and behaviour of cougars. A featured article is “Diet and Prey Selection of a Perfect Predator” by Kerry Murphy and Toni K. Ruth. It includes a chart entitled “Percent occurrence of prey animals in cougar diets in western Canada and the northern United States”

      According to this chart, elk were consumed more frequently than any other prey species in studies in British Columbia, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Looking at all of the 17 studies reported in this document, mule deer are the number one prey animals, but elk a close second.

      The suggestion that I took “literary license to make the cougar seem bigger, badder and generally more dangerous” also merits a response. That was not my intent at all. I chose to open the article by imagining a wary elk sniffing the air for indications of predators, to encourage readers to think about how profoundly different their hills were in the not so distant past.

      I wanted, as well, to establish the theme of loss and recovery – the loss of so many of our animals since the advent of European settlement, and the new and hopeful reality of some of them returning. The elk never will return, but the cougar??

      Lastly I thank the correspondent for his interest and envy his outdoor pursuits in such a lovely part of Canada.

      Online Editor on Sep 24, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Reply

    4. I come from an area of South Western Alberta with a healthy population of both cougars and elk and I have to say that the opening two paragraphs of this story reflect poorly on the author.

      The implication is that a cougar’s prime prey is/was elk. This is simply not true. Perhaps it was literary license to make the cougar seem bigger, badder and generally more dangerous?

      For the most part, deer are the only member of the ungulate family that they regularly stalk. Even the ranchers surrounding us rarely have cattle or horses taken down by a cougar, though they may well scavenge carcasses.

      Most cattle and horse losses can be attributed to coyotes, wolves or bears. Ms. Hubert’s mares were most likely NOT attacked by cougars, as they tend not to leave punctures on the hind quarters.

      As a person who was very active in hiking and hunting, I have spent an awful lot of time on friends’ ranches. I only witnessed two actual sightings, though tracks were more common.

      One of my best friends is a game warden and conducts investigations with regards to the livestock compensation program in Alberta.

      He directed me to this excellent publication on identifying the source predator.


      edward on Sep 23, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Reply

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