With more and more sightings being reported, experts predict cougars will soon re-establish a breeding population in Manitoba—but the return of the protected predator could mean big changes for hunting and trapping laws in the province.
Cougars, or mountain lions, haven’t populated Manitoba since settlers extirpated them in the late 1800s. Now, they’re a protected and rare species in the province. But in the last eight weeks alone, two cougars were accidentally killed in snares meant for coyotes.
“The reason that we think it’s increasing is because we’re getting more reports with hard evidence that are confirmed that people did see a cougar, and we’ve had more dead cougars,” said Bill Watkins, a zoologist with Manitoba Conservation.
This hard evidence could include hair snagged on a barbed wire fence, scat, carcasses, and tracks. But just sightings alone are not enough evidence, like when a Rosser, Manitoba elementary school went into lockdown a few years ago because of a cougar sighting on the playground that turned out to be a golden retriever. Watkins says people have also mistaken house cats, coyote, deer, and raccoons for cougars in the past.
“Eighty to ninety per cent of cougar reports by the public are cases of mistaken identity,” said Watkins. It’s up to him and his team to investigate each claim made of sightings in Manitoba.
Although they’re difficult to track, he estimates there are anywhere from 20 to 50 cougars in the province right now. In order for an actual breeding population to return, there needs to be evidence of a female cat or kittens in the area.
According to Watkins, cougar populations have rebounded in a number of states and western provinces already. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Alberta, and Saskatchewan have all been colonized by the big cats, some of whom he thinks will move into Manitoba to find space and ample food sources.
“I think we’re very close right now. Looking at North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, even Saskatchewan, from the time that the very first cougar was seen to the time somebody confirmed reproduction kittens is generally 15 years, and in some cases it’s been even less. Our first confirmed cougar in modern times was 2004, so 15 years out we’re getting pretty close,” said Watkins.
North Dakota’s cougar population rebounded in the early 2000s. By 2005, they opened up a hunting season for the animal.
“When we opened the hunting season it was considered experimental, we were really doing it to collect data than to allow a recreational opportunity. It was more to collect information about mountain lions,” said Stephanie Tucker, a furbearer biologist at the North Dakota Game and Fish department.
The information gathered includes age, survival, health, population and reproductive rates. The department also works to keep track of population trends to decide whether to increase or decrease hunting quotas, a decision that is eventually based on more than just numbers.
“There are a lot of social factors such as livestock deprivation, competition for deer, and public tolerance. Those are factored in as well besides whether the population is increasing or decreasing,” said Tucker.
Right now, it’s illegal to kill a cougar in Manitoba because they are a protected species under the Wildlife Act. Even a cougar attacking livestock is off-limits to hunters. In fact, a Manitoba man was taken to court by the province and recently charged for shooting a cougar in the Grandview area, according to the Manitoba Trappers Association.
Other surrounding provinces and states with bigger cat populations allow hunting, including Alberta and areas in British Columbia. In Saskatchewan, cougars can be killed to protect property and livestock.
“If we had several thousand [cougars], we would probably see demands from ranchers that we open a season,” said Watkins.
And seasons can change often. Take Nebraska, for instance. The state introduced a hunting season for cougars around 2013, and at the recommendation of a biologist, stopped allowing hunting by 2015.
“[They] just said we don’t know enough about the population, we really don’t feel it would be a good idea to hunt anymore,” explained Michelle LaRue, the executive director of the Cougar Network and a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota. LaRue coauthored a study released in November 2015 that suggests cougars are likely to recolonize midwestern North America within the next 25 years.
Tucker says North Dakota currently has a few hundred people actively going out to hunt mountain lions.
Open hunting season for cougars is a preferred method for population control, because relocation often doesn’t work for the quick moving cats.
“Mountain lions are extremely territorial, and if you have a population and you drop it in another area where you may have a suitable habitat, you’re really just dropping a mountain lion off in another mountain lion’s territory,” explains Tucker. “And that usually doesn’t end well. [The mountain lion] either just leaves and goes somewhere else and may or may not survive, or it’ll get killed by the mountain lion that’s there,” she said.
For now, the cougar remains a protected species in Manitoba that cannot be hunted, and a representative from the Manitoba Trappers Association says he doesn’t think this law will change anytime soon, even with the re-emergence of the population. Strict rules remain in the case of a cougar being trapped accidentally.
“In an accidental catch, a trapper is not allowed to move the animal. If you find that you’ve caught one, you do not move it from where it’s caught. You contact Manitoba Conservation,” said the representative. “But to be able to totally prevent the accidental catching of a cougar, I wouldn’t say totally impossible, but virtually impossible to do,” he said.