By Ken Powell

Last winter, Conservation Officers in the High River district were called to respond to a cougar’s bold attack on some domestic sheep.

On January 31, High River District received a complaint from an acreage owner that eight of her domestic sheep were killed during the night by a cougar.

When officers responded, they were surprised to find that a cougar had entered a shed where the sheep were housed by jumping through a closed glass window that was two metres above the ground. Once inside, the cougar killed all of the sheep, fed very little, then exited the shed by striking the latch on a storm door with its paw and pushing the door open.

The property was checked for tracks and one set was found leading in and out.

After considering a number of factors, officers decided to try to snare the cougar. The kill site allowed for very good control of the possible variables such as non-target animals and access could be manipulated so that the cougar could be easily funneled into the snare. Officers were confident that the cougar would return to feed. All but one of the sheep carcasses were removed and the snare was set.

At about 9:30 that night, one of the officers received a call at home from a woman whose daughter had observed three cougars on their property. The property was directly adjacent to where the snare had been set. Though the daughter did not get a good look at the cougars, she felt they were fairly large. Officers drove to the location where they found three spotted cougar kittens laying in straw bales. The mother cougar had been caught in the snare. While the officers were waiting for immobilization and transport equipment, the kittens disappeared.

The mother cougar was immobilized, placed in a culvert trap overnight and taken to the district warehouse. At this point it was decided that if the kittens could be captured, the family would be reunited and released in a remote area where they would not have the opportunity to kill domestic livestock.

Priddis area houndsmen, Dave and Paul Unger were contacted and agreed to assist in locating the kittens early the next morning with the help of dogs . NRS biological staff were also asked to participate in the capture and release of the cougars.

The following morning, a dog was able to track the kittens to an opening beneath the shed that was next to the straw bales. They had only wandered a distance of about five metres. Everyone involved used a good deal of creativity to capture the kittens. They were then taken to High River where they were placed in the culvert trap with their mother. It’s interesting to note that when the mother came out of the tranquilizer drug she was very irritable, restless and aggressive, but as soon as she sensed the presence of her kittens, she became much quieter.

The four were transported to and released in Kananaskis Country where a good population of deer exists and will provide a natural food source. The cougars were released more than fifty kilometres, as the crow flies, from the location where they were captured. It is hoped that the mother will feel comfortable and confident in raising her kittens in the area and will not return to settled areas. Their new surroundings probably came as a surprise to the kittens as the release site had 25-plus centimetres of snow on the ground and they had never experienced this amount of snow before.

This story is a good news one. It’s unfortunate that the owner of the sheep suffered such a loss, but this is a risk that people take in raising sheep in an area known to support healthy cougar populations. Compensation for the loss will be provided.

Officers suspected from the outset that a solitary cougar was responsible for the depredation. Another recent sheep loss in the vicinity and the bold effort to gain access to the sheep had officers leaning towards disposal of the cougar, if captured.

Fortunately, the kittens were discovered before the cougar was destroyed. Because the mother is saddled with three very young kittens, she is less likely to attempt to return to the area in which she was captured, at least in the near future. In the meantime, she may find her new environment a safe and productive one and have no reason to return to the Priddis area.

Sightings of cougar in the areas south and west of Calgary are common with some livestock and pet depredation occurring. When responding to complaints, the officers make sure that the complainants are aware that they reside in, and in some cases, conduct livestock operations in prime cougar habitat. Habitat is enhanced as acreage owners tend to develop elaborate shelterbelts to attract deer, birds and other forms of wildlife. Many of the landowners are reluctant to allow deer hunting and this absence of hunting combined with productive habitat leads to increased deer presence. As deer become more prevalent more cougars begin to inhabit the area. Cougars are predators and the fact that sheep, goats, llamas, etc. fall prey to cougars is not unusual.

Once people are aware that they are sharing the same environment with cougars, they must be educated on how to co-exist with them. This may mean that livestock producers build pens in such a fashion so as to prevent cougars from accessing them. They may bring livestock inside at night, utilize dogs as early warning systems or situate pasture areas where cougars cannot easily conceal themselves from livestock. Steps to reduce risk to household pets and family members are sometimes necessary. Owners are encouraged to bring pets in at night, brush back driveways and walkways to allow for good sight lines, accompany children to the schoolbus, supervise children playing outdoors and discourage the presence of prey species. All these precautions can help to avoid unfortunate experiences with cougars.

Ken Powell is a member of the
Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers
Association in High River