Big cats thought to have vanished from region in early 1900s
A four-year Ontario study confirms what many rural residents felt sure about: cougars are again living wild in Ontario.
Officially, the big cats were considered to have been wiped out by the early 1900s all across Eastern Canada. But a major research effort has documented tracks, fur, photos, DNA, drop-pings and hundreds of sightings, some of them by trained biologists.
“The evidence from this study provides proof that cougars live in Ontario; however, it does not indicate the origin of these animals,” the study concludes.
It doesn’t address Quebec directly, but notes that the cats are in Eastern Ontario and like to roam. The study period was from 2006 to 2010.
Some cougars may have moved east from Manitoba, or north from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. A cougar can travel 50 kilometres in a night, and over 1,000 kilometres over a longer period.
Some were likely raised as pets and released when they grew too big to handle, or they may have escaped.
Study author Rick Rosatte estimates there are “several hundred” cougars in captivity in Ontario.
And other cougars may have stayed in Ontario all along. Rosatte suspects today’s cougars are a genetic mix of cats from all three of these sources. But their origin doesn’t really matter, he adds.
“What is important is that there are free-ranging, North American-type cougars in Ontario.”
Rosatte set up a group of 89 biologists and wildlife technicians to settle the long debate over whether cougars still live in Ontario and other eastern provinces.
In the late 1980s, one study had documented 189 reports of cougar sightings in the past 50 years. But hard evidence was scanty. Besides, there was a chance that a very few cats had escaped but never established a breeding population.
Rosatte travelled to cougar workshops in Western U.S. states to gain experience. He arranged forensics help from Trent University. He spoke to hunters and trappers groups to spread awareness.
And in the years that followed he reports getting 497 pieces of evidence – mostly sightings. These included:
. Twenty-one pieces of physical evidence, including 13 con-firmed cougar tracks as well as scat and tufts of hair. The tracks were in many parts of the province, the hair was near Sudbury, and the scat was near Kenora;
. Thirteen sightings by trained biologists or wildlife technicians. Nine of those were in the southeastern part of the province, running from Cornwall and Pembroke to Oshawa and Parry Sound;
. A further 463 sightings by other people in Ontario.
The study cautions that not all reported sightings are accurate. Sometimes people mistake other animals such as lynx or fishers for cougars. And the number of reported sightings can jump sharply after news reports of possible cougars in an area.
The team’s attempts to photograph cougars produced very little evidence. It set up cam-eras on likely sites and waited, but from 2008 to 2010 they got no clear cougar photos while shooting more than 154,000 frames of other animals. Just one infrared image was judged to be similar in shape to a cougar.
This suggests cougars “exist at low density in Ontario,” the study says.
Ontario is excellent cougar habitat, the study says. The cat’s main prey is deer, and there’s no deer shortage in the province.
Some of the cats reported to the biologists were definitely escapees of foreign species, including an all-black jaguar, native to Central and South America and Mexico but photo-graphed near Guelph, Ont., in 2010. Real cougars, the study says, are never black.
Many official sources have resisted supporting claims that the cougar has returned to Eastern Canada.
Hinterland Who’s Who, an educational series produced by Environment Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, advises: “There is little physical evidence, such as road kills or scats, that cougars have been present in Eastern Canada since the nineteenth century.”