Cougar hunters in B.C. who target and kill big adult cats are linked with increasing subsequent dangerous interactions with people, says the University of Victoria co-author of a new study.
The death of mature, mainly male, cougars provides inroads for immature “teenage” cougars to get in trouble with risky behaviour, and that includes contact with humans, said Chris Darimont, the Hakai-Raincoast professor at UVic.
It’s not a cause-and-effect relationship, but an association based on 30 years of B.C. data studied by three researchers, including ones at the University of B.C. and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Ecology.
“When the larger males are removed, younger males fill the void left by the killed cats,” said Darimont, scientific director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
“And younger cats are most likely to get into conflict.”
The finding held up across the province, including Vancouver Island, which is widely described as the world’s “hotspot” for cougars.
The “strong but not universal pattern” adds to the growing weight of evidence that killing large predator mammals causes many more problems than it solves, he said. That’s because the data show that for both male and female cougars, it’s always the younger and smaller animals that come into conflict with humans.
The finding is significant in contradicting the notion popular among proponents of carnivore-hunting that culling cougars by hunting makes conflict with people less likely.
“It confronts and demolishes the idea that hunting cougars can decrease conflict,” Darimont said. Most hunters in B.C. eat what they kill, but not cougar hunters, he said.
“I believe they hunt cougars not to feed their families but to feed their egos,” he said.
The B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said provincial wildlife staff have not had the opportunity to review the study in enough detail to comment, although they were apprised of it more than two weeks ago.
“However, staff advise that hunting does not link to conflict between young cougars and people,” the ministry said in a statement. “High/robust cougar populations do, as young cats search for their own new home ranges/territories. The lack of cougars and high prey base in and around urban areas attracts these dispersing young cats, which often leads to conflict.”
Jesse Zeman, a spokesman for the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said there are “definitely some challenges with the study’s design” and disputed Darimont’s contention that cougar meat is not eaten.
Zeman, 36, learned to hunt as a child with his father and grandfather. He has never shot a cougar, but has eaten cougar meat. At annual wildlife buffets, “sweet and sour cougar is one of the favourites in the Okanagan,” where he is based, but it’s served all over the province, he said.
Darimont criticized the federation for “blindly supporting” all hunting of carnivores.
“They fail to see that most people support the hunting of herbivores like deer, elk and moose because it feeds families. But only a tiny minority thinks it’s OK to feed egos via trophy hunting of carnivores.”
Zeman rejected that characterization of the federation and cougar hunting.
“It’s more about spending time with family and friends, and getting outdoors and getting meat,” he said. Those are the three main motivations, with trophy hunting far down the list.
The province said there are no legal requirements for hunters to remove edible portions of harvested cougar, provided the hide is removed.
“However, cougar meat is considered to be excellent table fare and most, if not all, cougar hunters retrieve the edible portions of harvested cougar,” a ministry official said.
Lesley Fox, executive director of Vancouver-based The Fur-Bearers, a non-profit society dedicated to protecting fur-bearing animals, defends the study.
“This peer-reviewed, published study does what good science should do: Test new ideas with evidence. It is obvious to us that in addition to a growing mountain of reliable research, the government of British Columbia is not listening to the scientific community in regard to wildlife policy, but to those who may be influential come election time,” she said in an email.
Hunting is a big business in B.C. A provincial government analysis of hunting expenditures by B.C. residents in 2012 showed they spent $229.7 million — “a mean annual amount of $2,900 per hunter.” That included everything from fuel to ammunition, licences, lodging, equipment and food and drink.
The website of one up-Island hunting outfit describes how a guided hunter comes in for a cougar kill:
“Once road access has ended and the cougar track enters heavy cover, the hounds are released and begin trailing the cat until treed. The actual trailing can vary from a short five-minute ‘pop up’ to an all-day marathon. Once the cat is treed, every effort will be made to get as close as possible to the area by accessing one of the many logging roads that wind their way through our area. The final push to the tree will be made on foot in a variety of terrain. We can tailor your Vancouver Island cougar hunt to your physical condition.”
Darimont said that if the province is interested in reducing cougar-human conflict, it would re-evaluate cougar-hunting policy.
“My prediction is that if hunting was reduced or banned, there would be fewer human lives at risk, and if that is not compelling for a re-evaluation of policy, I’m not sure what is.
“Why jeopardize human safety to appease a minority of hunters who kill carnivores for trophy?” he asked. “California banned cougar-hunting after a referendum won easily. Romania just announced last week the end of hunting for wolves, lynx and grizzly bears — all similarly inedible carnivores killed for sport and trophy. B.C. policy still operates according to a 1950s mentality.”
Darimont said that in the 1970s, hunters killed roughly 175 cougars a year in B.C., including 25 on the Island. That peaked in about 1995 with 450 per year and 110 on the Island. The 2015 figure is 337 kills by hunters, 220 of them males.
Based on an analysis of habitat able to support deer and on estimated cougar densities, the province said the B.C. cougar population is between 5,100 and 7,000, with 800 to 1,100 cougars on Vancouver Island.
“Cougar populations are cyclical, responding primarily to changes in deer density,” the province said.
“Estimating cougar populations is challenging because cougars are secretive, and populations can be estimated only indirectly using other indices.”
Bryce Casavant, a former B.C. Conservation Service officer suspended and transferred for refusing to kill two bear cubs after their mother was put down in Port Hardy, said the province doesn’t really have firm predator numbers.
“Often our population estimates rely on ‘expert’ opinion and are really nothing more than a best-guess method. The problem is we often get it wrong. History shows us that we have hunted species to extinction by guessing. The basking shark in B.C. is a perfect example,” said Casavant, who is studying wildlife-conflict issues as a doctoral candidate in Royal Roads University Social Science program. He plans to run for the NDP in the 2017 B.C. election.
Hunting and killing the big cats does not damage the gene pool of cougars for coming generation, the ministry said. “In most cases, big cats would have already contributed to the gene pool by the time they get big, and their offspring are likely around.”
Casavant said there is a major difference between managing wildlife to extract hunter kills in perpetuity and true conservation of wildlife for co-existence and species sustainability.
“I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong,” he said, but he is advocating changes in “false terminology” about conservation principles in B.C. policy and legislation.
The province said wildlife is managed on the principle of conservation first.
“Hunting opportunities are only provided where such activities are biologically sustainable. Under no circumstances does the province of British Columbia allow hunting that threatens the conservation of any species,” the ministry said.
There has been a huge increase in hunters in B.C., says the B.C. Wildlife Federation.
“After years of decline, the number of people taking up hunting has skyrocketed — increasing from 86,000 in 2005 to 112,000 in 2015,” with growth led by youth and women.
“People are becoming far more concerned about where their food comes from and just reconnecting with nature,” Zeman said.
The downside, Zeman said, is that “B.C. is one of the most under-funded jurisdictions in North America for fish and wildlife management,” as evidenced by declines in everything from Mountain caribou to Thompson steelhead.
Unlike most of North America, B.C. does not have a dedicated funding arrangement to support wildlife populations, the federation said. Less than 20 per cent of hunting licence fees is dedicated to the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which provides funding for fish and wildlife conservation projects in B.C.