Northern Alberta

Evidence of cougar in Whitecourt area

Cougar (Ian Lindsay photo)

By Vicki Winger, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Whitecourt Press

WHITECOURT – Common animals in the area are moose, deer, black bear and the mighty grizzly bear. Over the past few years, cougars have also made their presence known. These wild animals all thrive in the dense forest surrounding Fox Creek. Not only do the forests provide great shelter, but the natural cycle of the food chain is what keeps them here. It depends where these animals sit on the food chain and if they are the predator or the prey that keeps them here. Sightings of cougars in the area is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. 

For centuries humans have lived alongside wildlife, and as we continue building and encroaching into their territory, there will be more encounters. More often than not, all wildlife is afraid of humans, just as we fear them. The wildlife common to this area, such as moose and deer, are more docile towards humans and know they are prey; therefore typically run in the opposite direction. The grizzly bear and cougar are predators and sit at the top of the food chain. Despite their status and known as the hunters, they won’t show signs of aggression towards humans unless provoked. As the cougar is the newest animal to venture close to town, people need to understand them better and learn to respect them to live amongst them. 

Studies done by Wildlife Societies indicate the cougar population is on the rise in Alberta as the deer population has increased. Cougars are found in habitats suitable for white-tailed and mule deer as that’s the preferred prey. The forested areas surrounding Fox Creek are prime locations for the big cat as it offers an abundance of places to make a den, and the trees provide excellent camouflage while they stalk its prey. There has been evidence of a cougar on the biking trails, but the elusive creature has not been physically spotted. Wildlife experts indicate it’s rare to see one as they are “masters of camouflage” and can hide beneath a spruce tree while you walk by and never know it.

Cougars are loners and will call it home if satisfied with an area due to sufficient food, shelter, and water. The home range territory can cover an area of about 300 square kilometres. Due to the coverage size, that may be why some residents have only spotted the occasional traces in passing. Once the cougar has established its home range or personal territory, it will defend and mark the area, discouraging other cougars from entering. As it’s confirmed, there is a cougar somewhere around the trail system; while you are out walking or biking, watch for other signs indicating its boundary. They may leave claw marks on trees near the territory edges or leave piles of leaves, pine needles, and dirt that’s covered over with urine and feces. 

As big and scary as these majestic creatures seem, human encounters are rare because they are so elusive. A few safety tips from Alberta Fish and Wildlife should come across a cougar; first off, do not run or scream. Walk away slowly and never turn your back to the cougar. Under normal circumstances, they will not attack unless they are threatened, or you’ve backed them into a corner with leaving them no escape route. Of the human attacks reported, most of those are children or adults jogging or hiking alone. As children are small and have a high-pitched voice, they are portrayed as easy prey to the cougar.

As a preventative safety measure, if you’re out with children, keep them between the adults and don’t let them run ahead or lag. Another big one is dogs. As evidence of a cougar was spotted on the trails, it may be best to leave them at home as they can attract the cougar due to them being easy prey or keep them on a short leash. If you’ve found yourself too close to the animal and its grooming and only taking momentary glances as you, that’s your cue to back away slowly and leave the area. However, if it’s staring intently and begins hissing, that’s when it becomes a real threat. Prepare to stand your ground, show the cougar you are not prey. Make yourself as big as possible, which can be done by opening your coat and waving your arms. If that fails, fight back using fists, sticks or anything handy to hit it in the face and eyes. The goal is to remain standing and don’t stop fighting. 

As mentioned, a cougar’s home range is around 300 square kilometres, a large area for one animal. Don’t let this deter you from getting out on the trails for fresh air and exercise. Be prepared before going out is all. Carry bear spray, a whistle or bells and avoid plugging in your headset or earpieces for music so you can stay in tune with your surroundings. Travel in pairs or a group, pick up a stick if you’re walking or a noisemaker if you’re out on the bike. If you do come across the cougar or evidence it’s in the area, don’t hesitate to advise the Fox Creek Fish and Wildlife office.