Wednesday 23 June 2010

Confirmed: Big cats prowl in Ontario (Via Andrew Gibson)

Confirmed: Big cats prowl in Ontario
Tracks, scat and DNA lay to rest any doubt that cougars exist here

Raveena Aulakh
Staff Reporter
Mon Jun 21 2010

It’s really, truly official: Cougars in Ontario are fact, not fable.

A definitive four-year study by the Ministry of Natural Resources has finally put a rest to all doubt that the big but reclusive cats prowl the province’s wilderness.

“Cougars have been here all along . . . we are collecting additional information about them now,” said Rick Rosatte, a senior research scientist in Peterborough. More than 30 pieces of evidence have been collected, including photos of tracks, DNA and scat samples that verify the big cat’s presence.

Of the roughly 2,000 reported sightings in the province since 2002, very few have been confirmed by track marks or DNA. Ontario’s original population was thought to have been hunted out of existence in the late 1800s. The last cougar shot here was found in 1884 near Creemore, south of Collingwood.

Rosatte says the study begun in 2006 has had three phases: investigating potential sightings; examining tissue, scat or DNA; and setting up cameras across the province — including at Kenora, Lindsay and Sault Ste. Marie, where the last confirmed sightings occurred.

He interviews people who think they’ve spotted a cougar, tries to determine the animal’s size and, when it sounds really promising, sets up trail cameras triggered by motion and heat. Dozens have been set up, but there are no photos yet. “We are hoping for photos, but cougars travel a lot and they travel very fast,” said Rosatte.

The cats, also known as pumas and mountain lions depending on region, can travel up to 50 kilometres a night, within a territory ranging up to 1,000 square kilometers.

But the big question about the natural-born killers with a muscular saunter, is: Where did they come from?

“Were they always here? Are these native cougars? Are they coming from the west? Or are these released captive animals?” said Rosatte. “It’s intriguing.”

He doesn’t think there’s a large population but declined to put a number to it. “I don’t think it’s substantial,” he said.

Stuart Kenn, president of Ontario Puma Foundation, who has been tracking the elusive animal for three decades, estimates there are 550 cougars in Ontario. There appears to be a “cougar corridor” bordered by Ottawa, Peterborough and Owen Sound to the south and North Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie to the north.

“The best way to study these animals is to track them down with dogs,” Kenn said. “But since the province has listed them as endangered, we can’t do that.”

The foundation, which shares data with the ministry, has already developed a recovery plan that, among other things, encourages protecting large wilderness tracts where cougars prowl.

But while cougars are out there in the wilderness, there’s no need to worry, said Kenn. In Ontario, “There’s never been a confirmed attack on a human by a cougar. It’s very, very rare.”

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