The recent news on a cougar being seen in the River John area has revived the discussion about cougars in eastern Canada.
Cougar sightings are reported every few years from both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Initially I was skeptical, but over the years I have talked to a few people who have seen cougars. They spend more time in the woods than I do and I respect their opinion.
They are convinced they saw a cougar. One person saw one in Cape Breton and the second saw one chasing a deer in Guysborough County. They are not alone as hundreds of people have reported seeing a cougar to wildlife departments over the years.
Unfortunately very few of the reports have included a photograph and, for the ones that have, the picture is out of focus, it was too dark or there is nothing to provide a reference point to tell you how large the animal was. For the few images, I have seen I would confidently say it looks like large house cat.
I have seen a few cougars in wildlife parks and they are certainly very impressive animals. A large male is over two meters long and can weigh up to one hundred kilograms. Brown as a deer, they are very strong and can leap impressive distances.
Today the majority of cougars are found in Western North America where their favourite prey is deer, but historically cougars ranged throughout Eastern North America. Debate continues on how common they were in eastern Canada but there are records of cougars in the area. The late Dr. Bruce Wright was a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Sackville, New Brunswick who made it his life’s work to document cougar sightings in eastern Canada. From 1948 to 1971 he documented 220 reports of sightings from New Brunswick and 26 from Nova Scotia. Since 1977 the Canadian Wildlife service has logged cougar reports and has received 265 reports from Nova Scotia.
The search continues and in 2001 biologists set out scratching posts in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in an attempt to gain some insight on the presence of cougars. These posts are laced with hormones, known as pheromones, which are attractive to cougars. Any animals in the area should be attracted to the posts and, while scratching they deposit hair samples. The researchers collected 322 samples and of these 10 were confirmed as coming from cougars, eight in Quebec and two in New Brunswick.
What I found most interesting was four samples had DNA of North American origin, four from Central or South America and two were of unknown origin. This suggests that some of the animals were probably former pets that were released or escaped.
While the thought of someone letting a cougar loose seems implausible, back in 1960 an American business man apparently illegally released three cougars from Idaho in Newfoundland. The nine cougar sightings reported on Newfoundland since then are believed to be the progeny of those animals.
So, whether the cougars that people are seeing are former pets, or cougars expanding their range from the west, they appear to be a few in the Maritimes. In any case, I expect reports will continue and the mystery surrounding this animal will only grow.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.