Watch out, Alberta — close encounters with cougars are on the rise

Wildlife experts say that as humans encroach more into cougar habitats, and as cougars adapt more to being where people live, the possibility of a close encounter is increasing.

Cougars being seen more frequently in the outskirts of Edmonton and Calgary

More attacks have been reported in the western U.S. and Canada over the past 20 years than in the previous 80, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. (Phil Walker)
Listen24:03

Ready Story Transcript

Keep your guard up, Albertans — cougars could be coming to a backyard near you. 

Wildlife experts say that as humans encroach more into cougar habitats, and as cougars adapt more to being where people live, the possibility of a close encounter is steadily increasing. 

"Cougars are being seen fairly frequently now on the edges of large cities including Edmonton and Calgary," said Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a human-wildlife conflict expert who teaches at the University of Alberta. 

Researcher Meghan Beale says part of the reason for the uptick in attacks is that people are spending more time in cougar country. Her research team from the University of Alberta will hike up to 15 kilometres in order to visit cougar kill sites. (Submitted by Meghan Beale )

Effective conservation efforts to reduce the persecution of wildlife across North America is also leading to more cougar encounters, St. Clair told The Current's guest host Connie Walker.

Cougar attacks on the rise 

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, there have been about 25 fatal cougar attacks in the last 100 years. ​More cougar attacks have been reported in the western U.S. and Canada over the past 20 years than in the previous 80 years.

Last month, two cyclists were stalked by a cougar while riding in the back roads in the Cascade Mountains near Seattle. The cougar ended up killing one and injuring the other.

Frances Frost, 30, was also killed by a cougar in 2001 while cross-country skiing in Banff National Park. 

Frances Frost was killed by a cougar in Banff National Park in 2001. She's the only recorded cougar fatality in Alberta. (The Canadian Press/HO-Laura and Ed Frost)
 
* Warning: The description in this audio is graphic and may be disturbing to some listeners. 1:23

While wildlife experts agree cougar attacks are extremely rare, it's likely many people have unknowingly passed a cougar in the wild without ever knowing they were being watched, according to University of Alberta master's student Meghan Beale.

She's been researching cougar behaviour in the Hinton, Alta., area by using GPS collars to track the wild animals. Beale has noticed cougars are increasingly killing prey closer to humans, sometimes within a couple hundred metres from homes.

"For some people, it's in their backyards," Beale told Walker.

Combating 'naivete' with education campaigns 

The animals seem unfazed by industrial development, said Beale. 

"When we're out tracking cougars, they're using forestry roads they're using these oil and well pad roads and they're sometimes even walking along them."

This cougar nicknamed 'JaxonStorm' was captured, weighing in at 48 kg and was approximately four years of age. Meghan Beale's research involves collaring cougars and then monitoring them to see how far and wide they range. (Dave Hobson)

As more and more development plants a human footprint on wildlife habitats, St. Clair suggests we need to do more to safely co-exist with cougars to avoid causing conflict.

People also need to be wary of attracting cougars inadvertently, she said, giving the example of a homeowner putting out food in their backyard for deer. 

"The naivety that some people have around large carnivores is something that could be addressed with more targeted education campaigns," St. Clair said.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


— with files from The Canadian Press.

This segment was produced by Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.

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