Wildlife might be close to the hearts of B.C. residents in theory, but in real life, it’s rare for cougars who come into contact with humans or pets to survive the encounter.
The cougar killed near Ucluelet Jan. 6 after stalking a cat inside the home of Ted Benson was among 63 cougars killed by B.C. conservation officers since last April, including 23 on Vancouver Island. Another 30 big cats were killed by RCMP or others in cases of “imminent threat” or when an officer was unavailable, an Environment Ministry spokesman said.
In the past four years, only five cougars from the Island were anesthetized and relocated by conservation officers and six more hazed — that is, re-habituated to their natural diet and fear of humans, according to ministry figures.
That’s because it’s not only difficult and traumatic for the cougar, but almost always unsuccessful, said Mike Badry, wildlife conflict manager for the Environment Ministry.
Yes, it’s more expensive to trail a cougar and capture it depending on the number of staff involved and how far the animal is transported by vehicle or helicopter but “money is not the issue,” he said. “If it worked, it would be used quite readily.”
Relocation is so unsuccessful that a cougar is “pretty much dead” even as the process is being undertaken, he said. They are severely stressed by anesthetization and being moving and then use their “incredible ability” to find their way back to the place where the problem occurred in the first place, he said. That is if they don’t get killed on the highway or by another cougar whose hunting territory they’re invading as they travel, Badry said.
Whatever the cougar’s predicament, the key issue is the risk to human safety. A total of 29 B.C. residents were injured by cougars since 2000, but none killed since two people in the 1990s, according to the Biodiversity Branch of the B.C. government.
Once a cougar has been bold enough to enter a house to pursue a food source — a pet — it must be destroyed, as it has lost its fear of humans, which increases the risk to human safety, Badry said.
That said, a B.C. resident is much more likely to be killed by a dog or stinging insect than a cougar, says the 2010 report on cougars called B.C.’s Neglected Carnivore produced by the Rainforest Conservation Foundation.
A bullet reduces the chances of more conflict between humans and a particular cougar to zero and is “much cheaper” than tranquillizing and relocating, said foundation science director Chris Darimont, also a University of Victoria geographer.
Given how seldom cougars survive encounters with conservation officers, Darimont isn’t sure the officers’ title is the correct one.
“I’ll also say that I suspect most to all feel awful about having to kill cougars and other animals. They work within a system that is broken.”
How? “It’s broken because it’s increasingly underfunded to perform conservation objectives, as evidenced by the typical lethal outcomes of human-cougar conflict as opposed to more expensive options — education and relocation.
“It’s also broken more fundamentally in that the target of conservation is so-called ‘game’ prized by hunters, not the conservation of carnivores as populations or individuals.”
The cougars’ ecological role and the welfare of individual cougars should be taken more into account instead of a “default to lethal control” methods, he said.
Human behaviour is frequently the reason that cougars become habituated, said the ministry official.
“We’ve allowed cougars to be comfortable around urban areas,” Badry said. One way is by making communities attractive to deer — cougar prey — by offering plenty of easy food in the form of gardens or handouts. Another is garbage left outside that attracts raccoons — another favoured prey. For cougars, pets are an easy kill compared to other wildlife, he said.
When cougars become aware of humans as food sources and have shown no fear around them, they are habituated, and could try to return, “causing a significant risk to humans, specifically small children, as well as to pets and livestock,” the Environment Ministry spokesman said.
Hazing sounds good as an alternative to shooting cougars, but its application is “very limited” to naïve young animals who do not associate humans with available food and react to them by fleeing, rather than indifference, curiosity or starting to crouch. If they have attacked pets or livestock, cougars must be destroyed, he said. They’re habituated, Badry said.
Juvenile cougars, often the ones that are destroyed, might be spilling into marginal hunting areas closer to humans because mature cougars have established the best hunting territory for deer and the occasional elk, Darimont said.
“There are a lot of cougars out there, getting pushed out,” he said, turning to areas closer to homes in light of the downturn in blacktail deer in the wild. He cringes at Oak Bay municipality culling deer when cougars go without.
Darimont abhors how cougars are sometimes tracked after habituation on the way to their destruction. He describes cougar hounds equipped with radio telemetry collars set off near fresh tracks and treeing cougars until the arrival of officers in a vehicle who shoot the cougar out of its perch with a high-powered rifle.
The Raincoast foundation quotes a 1997 report that says: “Remarkably, the annual budget for cougar management in B.C. was estimated at only $12,000. These funds were used primarily for the inspection of dead cougars.”
Wildlife budgets are not allocated by species, responds Greig Bethel, spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
That figure likely refers to the compulsory inspection the province requires.
“This means that after harvest, they must be presented for inspection to a designated official to confirm the kill, which monitors harvest.”