Cougar riddle in Nova Scotia may soon be answered

The question of whether there are cougars in Nova Scotia may be answered this month.

Hair collected from scratch posts being tested after one positive, one inconclusive test for cougar DNA

The last confirmed sightings of Eastern cougars are believed to be in Maine in 1938 and in New Brunswick in 1932. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now says cougars in eastern parts of Canada and the U.S. have been extinct for 70 years. (Craig Pamplin)

The question of whether there are cougars in Nova Scotia may have an answer this month. 

According to Parks Canada, hair collected from scratch posts designed to lure the elusive creatures and collect their hair has yielded one positive result for cougar DNA and another unconfirmed result. 

Chris McCarthy, resource conservation manager at Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, said Parks Canada has hired another independent lab to analyze the sample from Keji to determine if indeed there are cougars in the province. 

"We've got conflicting results. It's really important — Parks Canada has to base everything in sound scientific method and we have to ensure accurate results. In this case, we have two results and they're conflicting," McCarthy told CBC's Maritime Noon

"We have to ensure that we know for sure before we can announce anything. At this point, we have nothing conclusive."

'We need to be certain'

McCarthy said it's possible that if the test comes back positive for cougar hair, the animal could have been an escaped pet.

The animal would likely not be an elusive Eastern cougar, whose existence is controversial for a number of reasons.

For one, biologists cannot seem to agree whether the animal was its own distinct subspecies or whether all North American cougars are part of the same subspecies.

Also, the last confirmed sightings of cougars in this area are believed to be in Maine in 1938 and in New Brunswick in 1932.

Biologists say numerous reported sightings in recent years are compelling and have helped sustain belief of the animal's existence here, but they have yet to find any scientific proof of the large cats. 

"People can make mistakes. There's degrees of certainty out there and we need to be certain beyond all reasonable doubt," said McCarthy. 

Lab results due this month may finally answered the question of whether cougars still exist.

The so-called Eastern cougar was designated as endangered in 1973, only to be redesignated "data deficient" in 1998 due to an absence of scientific proof. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the Eastern cougar from the endangered species list, declaring that the cougars have likely been extinct for at least 70 years. 

'Anything is possible'

So what is the likelihood there is a wild, breeding population of cougars in Nova Scotia? 

"My guess is — and I'm not an expert on cougars — my guess is it's unlikely," said McCarthy. 

"To me, there would be a lot more evidence." Evidence such as more conclusive DNA proof, cougar tracks and eyewitness photos.  

However, McCarthy is not ruling out the possibility that cougars exist in the province. "Anything is possible." 

Results are expected some time this month.

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