Cougar numbers in Alberta are on the rise — but that doesn't mean people need to be afraid, says an ecology expert.

Last week, a cougar was shot and killed after it took up residence in a west Edmonton backyard.

The incident was particularly startling for Robert Stebbings, who was sitting next to his garage when the young male cougar passed within five feet of him. Police ended up shooting the cougar when it advanced toward officers. 

Encounters like the one Stebbings had are not common. But they're also not unheard of, said Mark Boyce, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta.

One year ago, a cougar was killed in Calgary after it was spotted prowling outside of a local hospital. 

Mark Boyce

Mark Boyce is an ecology professor at the University of Alberta. (University of Alberta)

"It's to be expected given the expanding cougar population," Boyce said. "Also, young males just do strange things and show up in strange places."

In the Edmonton case, the young male cougar was a textbook "disperser" and was likely looking for a place to set up territory, Boyce explained.

Boyce said the cougar likely made its way into the city from the North Saskatchewan River valley, home to one of Alberta's many cougar territories.

"There are cougars pretty well across Alberta," he said, noting the highest density of cougars in North America is in the Cypress Hills in southeastern Alberta.

In terms of sheer numbers, though, the highest numbers of individual animals are found in the Rocky Mountains from Waterton Lakes through to Willmore, he said.

According to Boyce, fewer cougars are shot or poisoned now than in the past. At the same time, Alberta's deer population — the main prey of cougars — is spiking.

That means there are not only more cougars now than 30 years ago, but cougars are actively expanding into areas where they were not previously found.

That doesn't mean people need to be scared.

"In general, they're not dangerous at all," Boyce said.

"They're so sneaky that you oftentimes don't know they're there. It's unusual, in fact, that you know one's stalking you or watching you."

But occasionally, an animal will "do something irregular" and attack.

In 2001, Frances Frost was killed by a cougar while cross-country skiing near Lake Minnewanka, about 12 km east of Banff. Boyce estimated there have been 17 cougar-related fatalities in B.C.

However, he stressed those kind of attacks are the exception to the rule.

"It's certainly rare. Usually cougars are deathly afraid of humans and in fact if one stands your ground, they will seldom approach."

Boyce offered the following tips for avoiding a dangerous situation with a cougar:

  • Be aggressive and stand your ground
  • Make loud noises and make yourself appear as large as possible
  • If possible in well-known cougar areas, travel in a group