The cougar is the largest native cat in Canada. Usually averaging around 125lb for adult males and 100lb for adult females. But animals have been recorded in the past that weighed around 200lb. It has short fur of grey-brown to red-brown colour, and occasionally very light-coloured or black cougars can be found. Unlike its kittens, which are spotted and have ringed tails, the adult cat is unmarked, losing its markings as it reaches adulthood.
Distributed throughout the Americas, the cougar is found across Canada from the West coast and as far as New Brunswick to the East, including many coastal islands. The cougars greatest populations in Canada can be found in British Columbia and west Alberta. Studies on cougar territorial needs have shown that female cougars maintain 5-20 square mile territories, the larger territories usually for females with kittens. Male cougars in general require larger territories, occupying ranges up to 25 square miles. While territories of females can overlap, the ranges the males occupy don’t overlap and if a cougar moves through another one’s territory he’ll avoid contact with the residential cougar to avoid conflict. Visual and olfactory signals are used to mark their territory. Scratch piles in regular distances on which they often urinate or defecate can be found from female and male cougars, though the latter seem to mark their territory more frequently.
Hunting behaviour and food habits
The cougar can usually be described as an opportunistic hunter. Cougars don’t specialize in one prey species, but are likely to take any animal of a wide variety of species, including small prey like mice or grouse, beavers, hare, deer, wild sheep and mountain goats. It is widely known that their predatory skills are astounding, being able to even kill a moose, elk or black bear cubs and sometimes other cougar. In winter the cougar follows its prey species to lower elevations, usually into ungulate winter habitat with mule deer being the common staple food. Adult bucks of more than 1.5 years were often preferred over antlerless deer and it was noticed that there was a trend towards older animals being taken, though cougars make no special efforts to seek out older animals. Detailed studies have calculated that adult cougars need about 14-20 mule deer of average size per year. These numbers can vary depending on other available food sources that supplement their diet. Cougars will also occasionally take domestic stock or pets.
Like most cats they are very curious animals, and have been observed watching human activities from a safe distance, though they usually avoid direct contact with humans. It is rare for humans to get attacked and in case of such an attack it is most likely initiated by an older or starving cougar or a mother defending her young.
When hunting larger prey cougar can be found carefully stalking their victim rather than crouching down and waiting for an animal to come by. At the end of their stalk the cougar will try to kill the prey by reaching it within two or three jumps, leaping onto the prey’s back and finishing it with a bite to the neck, close to the base of the skull. This seems to be the most effective strategy. Though with bigger prey which are more likely to struggle and fight back, there is a chance of the kill being unsuccessful or the cougar getting hurt. Observations of hunters have shown that a cougar will usually give up on their prey, if they can’t make a kill and the prey escapes.
Cougars will also go for porcupines, avoiding the quills by flipping the animal over and starting to eat the quill-less side first. Quills have been found in cougar stomachs before where they seemed to cause very little damage and cougars with quills in their face or paws are not an unusual sight. In most cases the cougar will pull these out or they fall out or get worked under the skin (where they can cause a slow death if they hit vital organs).
Once the kill of a bigger game-animal has been made the cougar will repeatedly visit the carcass to feed of it, eating most of it, but for the rumen, bones, some viscera and some parts of the hide.
Before leaving the carcass they will cover it with debris or dirt, to hide it from other predators.
Breeding can happen at any time throughout the year. Cougars are polygamous, which means a male cougar will breed with more than one female. The female gives birth to one to four (rarely up to six) kittens after a 96 day gestation period. The kittens are born with closed eyes, which will open within the first two weeks after birth. The female tends the kittens by herself and after a nursing period of about six weeks, she starts feeding them meat.
Cougar Population Control and Cougar Management
Only sparse information about the common mortality factors of cougars exists but for the deaths that can be attributed to human hunting. The rise in popularity of snowmobiles and other machines has also made it easier for hunters, resulting in a greater pressure on cougar populations. An important limiting factor could be the number of available territories and the carrying capacity of the habitat. When the population gets too high, cougars will find less food in winter and thin and weakened cougar sightings suggest that starvation must be an important factor. Regardless of the size of the population, severe conditions in winter, like deep snow and extreme cold, make hunting difficult for young and old cougars and will often end in starvation. A less important factor is the occasional kill through another cougar.
Managing strategies have been implemented to protect cougars on one hand and on the other hand to keep the population at a healthy size, as a safety measure for domestic livestock and humans.
Cougars play an important recreational role for hunters and non-hunters, and are important regulators of mule deer and other populations that they prey on. Their predation in British Columbia sees no threat to healthy populations of mule deer, mountain goats, moose, bighorn sheep and other prey species; instead it has positive effects on those species.
Cougars play an important role in healthy ecosystem function. They cause a constant redistribution of game in their winter habitat through their predation. Mule deer, for example, will avoid an area where a kill has been made for a while. This therefore prevents a concentration of mule deer eating all the available food in that area. They also provide a culling effect in deer herds, by regularly taking out older or very young deer, that otherwise would be the most susceptible age groups to starvation through food shortages or diseases. Though it must be noted that cougars do not necessarily hunt weak or sick individuals. This leads to the last benefit; prey-population regulation. Animal populations can go through sudden increases that could lead to reaching the habitat’s carrying capacity. When this happens predator species usually also flourish, counteracting the overpopulation and creating a better balance, through their slow and steady removal of individuals. If predators would not regulate the prey-population the population would otherwise come down through some factor like food shortages or diseases, often bringing down the whole population to a very low level before it can recover. The cougar’s control of the prey-population is therefore benefiting that same population.
Today the hunter has partly taken the role of prey-population control, leaving a lower need for cougars to fulfil this role. To reduce our impact bag limits and restricted hunting seasons for game have been implemented, this way the natural need for the cougars as a prey-regulator remains, while at the same time we prevent overharvest of big-game species by maintaining reduced cougar populations in British Columbia.