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Vancouver Island Cougar

cougar track in the snow
Cougar at the zoo
Cougar smelling the wind
Cougar track
Cougar killed in James Bay, Victoria

Cougar

Puma concolor couguar

Of the estimated 4000 cougars in Canada, 3500 live in BC. Of this, nearly a quarter reside on Vancouver Island (itself only representing 3% of BC’s land area), resulting in the highest concentration of cougars in the world. Living mainly in the forested mountain habitats of the Island, the continual expansion of humans into their territory forces these shy creatures to interact with humans. Cougar attacks, though rare,  have helped these animals to become feared and misunderstood, and their predation on farm animals and the Vancouver Island Marmot have made them the target of occasional government sanctioned kills.


Description


The North American cougar is a large member of the Felid family, which contains most other large cats and the domestic house cat. The Vancouver Island population tends to appear reddish brown in colour and a fully grown male weighs around 70 kg. Cougars are generalists, eating almost any prey they can capture, but like most top predators on Vancouver Island, prefer the plentiful black-tailed deer. When deer are unavailable, cougars prey on smaller animals including rabbit, squirrel, sheep (from farms), small rodents, and even insects. On the Island, cougars are generally not migratory, but do follow the deer to lower elevations during the winter months.


Vancouver Island Range


Cougars are distributed ubiquitously over Vancouver Island, with a higher density in the less inhabited northern half of the Island. Population estimates are difficult with such a solitary animal, but most estimates put the Vancouver Island population in the 600-800 range. These animals are very territorial, with adult males controlling an average territory of 207 km2. The cougars on Vancouver Island tend to remain on the eastern side of the island, where there is less climatic variation, and a higher density of black-tailed deer. Sightings are common in the rural communities, with many elementary schools having formal cougar-warning plans in place. They have gained a certain degree of notoriety in central Vancouver Island, where their territory overlaps with that of the Vancouver Island marmot, and their hunting of the marmot is a serious risk to that critically endangered species.


Major Threats


Habitat destruction is the major risk to this species. As communities move further into the cougar’s habitat, the available range for the animals is reduced. Fragmentation is a serious threat as well, as cougars are generally unwilling to have their territory divided by roads, farmland, or settlements, and will be forced further into the forests, often into another cougar’s territory, resulting in stress and conflict among the local populations.

Conflict with humans continues to be a threat to this species as well. Hungry and stressed animals will, as a last resort, move down into settled lands in an attempt to find food, and can kill farm animals or family pets. When this happens, typically the animal is killed, either by the farmer, or by conservation officers, who are called to protect the community from the cougar. Cougars are also actively hunted for trophies on Vancouver Island, with many outfitters offering trips specifically designed to kill trophy cougars.

Overall, the cougar population is thought to be healthy. Given the vast population of their main prey item, the black-tailed deer, with protection of the cougar’s habitat and the limitation of hunting, the current population will likely remain stable in the long term.


Why are they Important to Vancouver Island:


As a top predator, similar to the wolves, the cougar is an important control for lower trophic levels, starting with the deer. As well, given that Vancouver Island is such a stronghold for this species in BC, the protection of the population on the island could serve as an important founding colony if local extirpations occur in other areas of Canada or the Northwest.

 

Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.