Cougars in Tofino
by Sean McCarroll, Tofino
They are one of the most elusive and mysterious creatures roaming the woods of Clayoquot Sound. Their secretive habits and highly evolved predatory abilities intrigue us, but they have also made cougars the subject of irrational fears and misconceptions. Most people, however, will live their whole lives with out so much as a glimpse of Canada's largest cat, much less a confrontation.
Cougar sightings around Tofino and Ucluelet are not uncommon. Last summer Bob Hansen, the Pacific Rim National Park's wildlife specialist, began the WildCoast project aimed at detecting cougar populations in the area. He uses tracks, scat, trip cameras, and scent lures that snag hair in order to pinpoint the number of cougars in the area as well as their sex and age. He says that part of the problem of getting this information is that cougars, by nature, are extremely elusive most of the time.
Their scientific name is Felis Concolor, but they are also known as mountain lions, panthers, pumas, and even "ghost-walkers." They are large, solitary hunters that once inhabited the whole of North America. Habitat destruction and "population controls" wiped out cougar populations on the east coast and they are now confined to the west. Recent findings have shown that small populations of cougars have started returning to areas in the east coast but, by far, the highest density of cougar populations is right here on Vancouver Island.
In order to strive, they require extensive, undisturbed forest. They can live in a wide range of habitats, from wet coastal marshes to rocky mountain regions. They are also excellent swimmers and have been sighted on nearly every island in Clayoquot Sound. The Queen Charlotte Islands are the only area of British Columbia where they have not yet populated.
An average adult male cat weighs between 80 and 180 pounds and the female between 80 and 125 pounds. Their fur is short and reddish-brown to grey-brown with a white underside. One unique characteristic is their long, black-tipped tails, that can stretch up to one-third their total body length.
One of the main reasons Cougars so easily capture our imaginations is that they are exceptionally well-equipped predators. They have a small head but muscular jaws and a wide mouth that holds long canine teeth designed to clamp down on prey much larger than itself. They are capable of killing a 600-pound moose or elk but their primary prey is deer; they also feed on wild sheep, elk, rabbits, beaver, raccoons, grouse, and occasionally livestock. Once they have their prey in their grasp they use smaller razor sharp teeth specially adapted for cutting meat, tendons, and sinews.
They are most active at dusk and dawn but will hunt at any time of the day or night and in all seasons.
They are territorial animals; the males keep a much larger territory than the females and they come into contact with each other only to mate. There is no fixed mating season, but typically 1-6 kittens are born midsummer. After about 18 months the young cougars leave their mothers and attempt to find an unoccupied territory for their own.
Bob Hansen says that it is during the period when these young cougars are looking for their own home range that people have sightings around Tofino and Ucluelet. The immature cats lack the survival skills that come with time. They are attracted to the fringes of towns in search of deer and raccoons. Every year there are typically a series of sightings close together and then none until next year.
Attacks on humans are extremely rare, but they happen more on Vancouver Island than anywhere else in the world. Bob Hansen says that it is a "low, but real risk where we live."
The best way to avoid an attack is to prevent encounters. Stay away from areas that are known to have cougar activity. Never approach a cougar, they are unpredictable are very capable of quickly attacking.
If you come across a cougar it is best to immediately try to scare it away; don't stop to take pictures. Remain calm, do not turn and run. Make yourself as large as possible, wave your arms, grab a stick and wave it as well, make a lot of noise and slowly back away facing the animal. If the cougar starts closing the distance between you, then you must become more aggressive. Throw rocks, sticks, dirt and yell at the cat. If you are attacked the sensitive areas to go for are the cat's eyes and nose.
Sean McCarroll is an outdoor and travel writer from Nova Scotia. He is spending a month in Tofino to recover from his journalism studies at the University of King's College.