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Biology of Cougars

 

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Manitoba Cougars

Cougars in Manitoba – Mountain Lions on the Prairies?

By Doug Collicutt

Bird's Hill ParkCougars in Manitoba? Mountain lions on the prairies? Yup and yup. The evidence is mounting that we shouldn’t be all that surprised to see some really big poody-tats out there. Cougars, mountain lions, panthers, a.k.a. Puma concolor have been sighted in our province with some regularity of late. Have they always been here? Have they just set up shop here recently? Or are they just passing through? Hold that thought for a second . . .

All right, all of you looking for the other kind of “cougar”, hit the back button on your mouse and go away! Or you could just head to the Palomino Club on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg! RRROWWRR . . .

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. . . Now, where was I? Oh yeah, cougars in Manitoba, what’s the real story? Well, the truth is the real story has yet to be written. There simply hasn’t been enough solid data collected yet to figure out what’s going on. There’s tantalizing bits of information, anecdotal reports and occasional sightings, but the hard evidence is still pretty elusive, just like the big cats themselves.

[Click for images: Photos - A magnificent cat. ]

I even have a cougar tale or two of my own to relate. One involves my in-laws who live near Cook’s Creek. They claim to have seen a big, brown, long-tailed cat running through open fields behind their house, and they say that various other neighbours out there had seen it, too. I have no reason to doubt their report, but were there any pictures taken, of the cat or its tracks, or any hair or scat (poop) collected? Not in this instance, so no hard evidence there.

My other “close encounter” with cougars was at my cottage in Whiteshell Provincial Park. Neighbours out there came to me, as the local “wildlife guy”, to ask me about what they had seen. They weren’t sure, but thought it was pretty odd. They had been driving back to the cottage, and just as they were turning off the highway onto the cottage subdivision road they saw a large, brown, long-tailed, cat-like animal run across the road in front of them, followed by two smaller spotted cat-like animals. From their description, and I made them tell me objectively several times what they had seen, there could be little doubt what they saw: a mother cougar and two cubs. An eye-witness account, yes, but still no hard evidence. But I am so jealous of them! Why can’t I ever see really cool stuff like that? In more than 15 years of stomping the bush out there, I’ve never come across any sign of a cougar, not even in winter when you’d think the tracks would be pretty obvious. Still, a sighting of a female with cubs does suggest a resident population? Or does it?

I spoke with Bill Watkins at Manitoba Conservation. He’s the biologist charged with keeping tabs on these big tabbies. He has to deal in hard facts and hard numbers. You can read his assessment of the cougar situation below. Historical records are not clear about whether cougars were in Manitoba when European settlers first arrived, but, if they were, they along with most of our large predators in the southern agricultural regions of the province may have been wiped out. In their book, Manitoba's Big Cat, published in 1982, Robert Wrigley and Robert Nero summarize what was known of cougars in this province to that date. From 1870 - 1981, they list evidence of 436 sightings of cougars and records of 15 cougars killed in Manitoba. In 1973 a cougar was killed near Stead, northeast of Winnipeg. At the time, with that animal and a body of anecdotal evidence, it was suggested that there may be a resident population of the big cats in the province. But for a long time no more bodies turned up and sightings tailed off. Then in 2004 two dead cougars from western Manitoba were turned over to Manitoba Conservation. (It’s too bad people are still blasting away at these magnificent cats. It is illegal to deliberately shoot a cougar in Manitoba, but I wonder how many are being shot, skinned and put on rec-room walls without Manitoba Conservation knowing?) And there has been more undeniable evidence of late. In May 2008 a Plum Coulee woman got a picture of a cougar on her land. [CBC News link - Cougar in Plum Coulee] Plum Coulee is about 120 km southwest of Winnipeg. Then in November 2008 a man in Lac du Bonnet in eastern Manitoba saw another cougar on surveillance camera footage from his property [CBC News - Cougar in Lac du Bonnet]. Seems like the evidence is mounting that catamounts (yet another name for cougars) may be residing here.

2014 Update: Cougar sighting southwest of MacGregor, Mb. A cougar was spotted on May 13 near this southwestern Manitoba town. Read more at this link: 2014 MacGregor Cougar Sighting.

Read a recent report from Manitoba Conservation: Cougars Confirmed in Manitoba (330 Kb PDF).

Another recent report from October 2008 casts an interesting light on the situation though. A cougar was shot and killed near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan [Saskatoon cougar shooting]. It turned out to be carrying a radio tracking collar that had been placed on it in South Dakota as part of a research project. There is a resident population in the Black Hills region of that state. The cat was nearly 1000 km from where it had been captured! Are our “Manitoba” cats actually occasional migrants, or strays, from this and another resident population in southwestern North Dakota?

2015 Update:"A cougar has been caught and killed near Boissevain, Man., making it only the fifth cougar found in the province in 11 years." (CBC) Read more at this link: 2015 Cougar killed near Boissevain.

2016 Update: And yet another cougar accidentally killed: Cougar Trapped Near Gilbert Plains.

This upsurge in sightings in 2008 got me thinking about cougars again and I decided it was time to do up an article for NatureNorth, and here it is. So, carry on for a primer on cougars in Manitoba, a little bit about their biology and some good resources out on the web to help you learn more about these big cats.

Carry on for The Biology of Cougars


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