by Corey Smereka, Mammalogy Assistant, Life Sciences

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Above: A mature female cougar lounges in a tree. Credit: Delaney Anderson

The first time I saw a cougar in the wild will probably end up being one of the most surreal and chaotic moments of my life.

I remember the date: December 13, 2016. It happened on my second day in the field, north of Rocky Mountain House, while doing research for my master’s project on cougars through the University of Alberta. We had found a cougar print and the hounds helping us track it were hot on its trail; using dogs is the standard way of tracking a cougar for collaring. Before long, the dogs had chased the cougar up a tree and our crew was scrambling into capture mode, collecting all the gear needed to get the job done.

I was hiking in to the location with Paul Frame, provincial carnivore specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks, when we got a radio call from Chiara Feder, a wildlife biologist on our team, asking if we could pick her up a few kilometres up the road. She and I began hiking to the treed cougar when I got a second radio call from Paul. “The dart gun is out of CO2!” he told me. “You’ll have to go back to the truck and get the spare canister.” So back I went. By the time I finally arrived on the scene, houndsman Lorne Hindbo’s dogs were tied up, and the tranquilizer dart was mixed and ready.

Then I saw it: the cougar. It was a spectacular sight. It was an 18-month old female that had chosen a dead aspen snag as her escape route. The cougar was perched on a single dry limb, all the while peering down at its pursuers.

We quickly loaded a new CO2 cartridge and Paul let the dart fly, hitting the cougar in the rump. The impact made the cougar flinch and the slight shift in weight was enough to break the dry branch it was perched on. The cougar began to fall but – cats being cats – she was able to quickly right herself as she fell and landed on her feet. Off she ran, the capture crew close behind. Eventually the tranquilizing drug took effect and we were able to collar her and collect data.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Image 2: A female cougar that had just been darted perches in a tree. Credit: Delaney Anderson

I doubt that that most people’s first cougar encounter would play out in such a way. At the time, I assumed most people had never seen a cougar in the wild at all. I grew up in Elk Point in northeast Alberta, where there are very few cougars, so I did not realize that people in some regions of the province come into contact with cougars quite regularly.

In fact, this has become a problem. From 1980 to 2014, cougar populations have expanded rapidly across Alberta. As a result, registrations of killed cougars have continuously increased. Since 2011, both licensed hunting and non-licensed cougar kill rates have also gone up. But non-licensed kill rates are rising much more quickly and are responsible for nearly half of total cougar mortality. In 2015, less than half of cougars were killed by resident hunters with licences. A combination of accidental trapping, problem cat mortality, boot hunting (that is, hunting without dogs), and landowner harvest are responsible for the majority of non-licensed cougar deaths.

To better understand cougar population dynamics and to improve the cougar management plan for our province, Alberta Environment and Parks initiated the Alberta Cougar Adaptive Management Project in 2015. The goal of the project is to minimize human-cougar conflict by adjusting cougar harvest quotas and, at the same time, allow for a stable population structure of cougars in Alberta. Alberta Environment and Parks is collaborating with the Royal Alberta Museum and the University of Alberta on this initiative. The project is taking place over an area of more than 15,000 km2 in west-central Alberta.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Image 3: Mark Edwards (left), curator of mammalogy, and Corey Smereka (right), mammalogy assistant, fit a female cougar with a GPS/VHF collar. Credit: Delaney Anderson

My master’s project focuses on the ecology of female cougars and their kittens. Its goal is to determine kitten survival and the factors that affect it, as well as the mother’s movement patterns and how these change when she is travelling with or without her kittens. My portion of the project will take place during the next two years. I will be supervised by Paul Frame, Dr. Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta), and Dr. Mark Edwards (RAM). I will be investigating cougar nursery sites to collect data and collar four- to six-week-old cougar kittens. I will measure kitten survival three times within the first year of their life. I am trying to determine what factors affect kitten survival, such as variables in the nursery site, the mother, and/or the kittens themselves. My results should provide information on survival and recruitment of kittens, which can then be used to adjust Alberta’s Cougar Management Plan.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Image 4: Corey Smereka shimmies up a pine tree to lower a tranquilized female cougar to the ground with a rope. Credit: Delaney Anderson

This year we started deploying collars in mid-December with the help of Lorne Hindbo and two other houndsmen, Brian Chorney, and Kelly Morton. We have collared 45 cougars (30 females and 15 toms). Eleven cougars were collared the previous winter, bringing the total to 56 cougars in our study to date. Since December 2016, eight of those collared cougars have died for a variety of reasons, including starvation, accidental trapping in wolf snares, or being shot by a landowner.

We’re wrapping up the collaring work for this season but cougars will continue to be collared during the next four years to maintain a sufficient sample size over the course of the project. The next phase of the project is collaring and monitoring the kittens, which I’m sure will be just as exciting and hopefully not too chaotic.

Royal Alberta Museum: Blog

Image 5: Corey Smereka, houndsman Lorne Hindbo, and biologist Delaney Anderson with an immobilized male cougar. Photo courtesy: Delaney Anderson