Cougar Management in Saskatchewan
Thank you to Shawn Burke, Wildlife Manager, Fish and Wildlife Branch, Regina, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment for permission to reprint this article.
Cougars have always existed in Saskatchewan in limited numbers. The current population is estimated at approximately 350 animals, which while low, meets the carrying capacity of the limited natural habitat that is available to them. It appears that cougar numbers are increasing due to high southern deer and small animal populations. This may result in an increase in those situations where a cougar enters a farmyard, town or city.
Cougars in these human environments can cause quite a commotion, which can result in panic from the public, until first responders arrive after receiving calls from the public. This commotion can draw crowds to the area to see what is going on, which creates a secondary situation that Conservation Officers and biologists must monitor and deal with to ensure public safety.
Cougars in urban areas are dangerous to themselves and to those trying to deal with them as they become stressed easily from the noise that humans make arriving on the scene. They will then naturally take to heavy cover under bushes, decks or in trees and then turn to face the enemy, which in this case are the police, conservation officers and wildlife staff trying to capture the animal and remove it to a safe, natural location. The cougar reacts by freezing, hiding and turning to face outwards, if on the ground, and has determined fight not flight as its best option for survival.
Having participated in the capture of almost 300 cougars in three jurisdictions, I understand their behaviour and likely responses to stimuli. Unlike ungulates such as deer, cougars possess very sharp claws, which make net gunning them almost impossible to accomplish safely for both the animal and officers involved. Neck snare and hand pole capture is almost impossible as well, due to the incredible strength these animals have and can only be attempted on very young or small animals.
There are only three small locations on the cougar where a tranquilizer dart can be delivered effectively which will lead to the rapid immobilization of the animal. Rapid immobilization is the key to ensuring both the welfare of the animal and the safety of those involved in the capture. If these locations are not clearly visible on the cougar, then tranquilizing the animal is not a viable option. It can take up to five minutes for the drugs to take effect once delivered so the officers/biologists must assess the risk as to whether the animal can be contained in the immediate area. Cougars will often run after being hit by the dart if the animal has decided to hide on the ground.
Some believe that ministry staff should try to get a cougar to turn or shift position so that a tranquilizer dart can be delivered. This would be an extremely high risk option for two reasons. The first reason is that the animal will often bolt from its location, which could lead to a long chase in an urban environment and put the animal through unwarranted stress. Secondly, in many cases the animal evades its pursuers for a period of time, which would put the public at risk or it could attack the officers as they try to get it to move.
I am the owner of the only trained group of dangerous wildlife service control dogs in the province able to track these animals. It can take several hours to take the dogs to an area to help the officers locate an animal depending on where the incident occurs. No capture should be attempted unless the tracking dogs are available, as the risk to the public is too high if the animal is lost in an urban area. In situations where the dogs are unavailable or are located too far away to be there in a reasonable time frame, capture is only possible if the cougar has climbed a large tree as they will remain there even when tranquilizer darts are delivered.