Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On cougars and field trips

On Monday I was at Bon Echo Provinical Park in Eastern Ontario Shield country, scouting out locations and activities for the field course I will be running for my 4th-year Environmental Studies class in September. For those who have not heard of or visited this park, it really is a gem. The park is situated around Lake Mazinaw, a very deep (<150m) lake along the East shore of which rises an impressive 90m cliff face known simply as The Rock. At the base of the rock, just above the water line, are ochre pictographs painted there centuries ago by the ancestors of today's Algonquin people who still reside in the region. Higher up the face are scraggly cedars up to a thousand years old or more.

In a steady drizzle I was making my way along a pathway through some conifers near the park's visitor centre, when I came face to face with a young white-tailed deer doe (Odocoileus virginianus). I tried not to disturb her as I passed within a few feet, but I needn't have worried; she hardly paused in chewing her cud. This was not the first time I have encountered exceedingly tame deer in the park. There is a very large deer population in the general region of the park, and within the park boundaries some deer have clearly lost their instinct to flee humans. Not a terribly good long-term behavioural adaptation for the deer.

Across Ontario, white-tailed deer populations have been very high for a number of years. Part of this is because of a decline in hunting, but a greater cause is the steady abandonment of agricultural lands in many parts of Ontario, and the conversion of cropland to pasture in many other areas. Abandoned fields bordered by newly-regenerating forest make ideal deer habitat. Harsh winters tend to reduce deer populations, but there hasn't been one of those in Ontario for some time. Even last winter, when snow cover on the ground was very high in many parts of Ontario, including the Bon Echo region, temperatures never got terribly cold. Also, the snows did not form a hard crust, which is difficult for spindly-legged deer to traverse but allows natural predators like wolves and coyotes to move more easily.

Which brings me to the subject of cougars (Puma concolor). Officially, cougars do not exist in Eastern Canada, having been eradicated from east of the Great Lakes early in the 20th century. While the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) receives regular reports of cougar sightings (and a persistent rumour exists in rural Ontario that MNR has clandestinely reintroduced cougars), none have been officially confirmed or substantiated with corroborating evidence. Although I have not personally seen one, I have no doubt there are cougars present in the region around Bon Echo Park. I have several reasons for this.

First, hunters I know in the area and whose judgement and veracity I trust have seen cougars on high ground near the Madawaska River, to the north of the Park. A few miles to the west of the park, someone else I know and trust recently had a good look at a cougar on his gravel road. A cougar is not an animal whose size, shape and form allow it to be easily confused with a wolf (Canis lupus) or coyote (Canis latrans), and the nearest specie of large cat still present in large numbers in the eastern forests is the smaller lynx (Lynx canadensis), which has very distinctive markings and shape.

A second reason is that there are no natural impediments to the return of cougars to Ontario. The Bon Echo region's mixed coniferous/deciduous transition forests are part of a vast forest system that spans the northern part of the continent, providing an unbroken geographical link to the cougar's western range. The fisher (Martes pennanti) - another (albeit smaller) predator that had been largely exterminated from the Bon Echo region due to trapping - successfully reintroduced itself, likely spreading from reservoir populations in the Adirondack/Green/ White Mountains through Quebec and back into the area. There's no reason cougars could not do the same given the geographical linkages between its present and former range.

Thirdly, the quantity of potential prey for cougars has probably not been higher in a century. Not only are deer populations so large (and around the park, so stupidly tame), there are large numbers of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) as well. Turkeys were deliberately reintroduced to Ontario in the 1980s to restore a population that had been exterminated by hunting, and have flourished to the point where many rural Ontarians now find them in their backyard bird feeders. It is not typical for nature to let such a biological imbalance persist for long, and so it is reasonable to assume that wolf and coyote populations will grow and cougars will return, if they haven't done so already.

The fact that cougar sightings in Ontario have been scattered, sporadic and difficult to substantaite is not surprising given the cougar's behavioural patterns. Even in areas of BC and Washington state where cougar denisties are high, encounters between humans and cougars are rare and are typically initiated by the cougar, not the human. With game plentiful and Ontario's rural human population density continuing to slide, there are few reasons for cougars to initiate contacts with humans, and few opportunities for chance encounters. The return of the cougar to eastern Ontario should be seen as a good thing in terms of maintaining the balance and health of the ecosystem. It does present some concerns to rural Ontarians that should not be dismissed. Cougars will occasionally attack livestock (a risk to household incomes) and, in rare instances, will stalk humans (most often children and people of small physical stature, and typically during seasons when game is unusually scarce).

This posting is not meant to frighten or cause unnecessary concern. There are already wolves and bears in Eastern Ontario, and the types of precautions people already take to avoid encounters with those animals will likely suffice to keep us away from cougars. Just the same, in two weeks time I will be taking 22 sons and daughters of other people into the forests of the Bon Echo region for their field study course, and it gives me one more thing to think about and plan for.

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