For the Welland Tribune: by Adam Shoalts
It was a deathly cold night; a fresh snowfall blanketed the ground while pale moonlight eerily illuminated the rolling fields and surrounding deciduous forests. Immediately in front of me lay a grisly sight: the mangled remains of a half-devoured deer carcass.
After nights spent wandering, I felt I was at last close to the object of my search: Pelham’s elusive cougar.
This evidently was a fresh kill. The cougar, so I hoped, was still somewhere nearby. Perhaps right behind me, in the thick bushes.
But to start from the beginning.
Cougars, also variously known as panthers, mountain lions or pumas, once inhabited virtually the whole of this continent, save for the Arctic. However, increasing human populations, expanding farmlands, and above all rampant hunting of these big cats resulted in the general belief that they had been extirpated from not only Ontario, but the whole of the northeastern portion of North America.
An adult male cougar can weigh up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds), and in western North America where cougars remain relatively wide-spread, cougar attacks on humans occur periodically, sometimes resulting in death.
The last known shooting of an indigenous cougar in Ontario took place in 1884. Some 24 years later in 1908 naturalist C.W. Nash asserted in his Manual of Vertebrates in Ontario that the cougar had been extirpated from the province.
That has remained the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources official position on cougars to date. For decades many experts even believed the eastern cougar (a subspecies of cougar) was extinct. In recent years though, reports have emerged that cougars still exist in the wilds of Ontario.
The evidence to support this belief is quite compelling. In 1995 scat discovered in northwestern Ontario was identified by a DNA analysis as cougar scat, and earlier this year the MNR confirmed that scat discovered in the Wainfleet bog was positively identified as cougar scat.
Recently, residents have reported cougar sightings in north Pelham, which coincides with a province-wide trend—since 2002 more than 500 people have reported cougar sightings in Ontario.
The Niagara Peninsula, while hardly a wilderness, is surprisingly a hotspot for these sightings. The cougar’s primary prey is whitetail deer, and the explosion of the deer population in southern Ontario, including Niagara, might be responsible for the cougar’s resurgence.
Some skeptics have argued that recent cougar sightings in eastern North America are not of wild, indigenous cougars, but in fact are only escaped or released animals from private owners or zoos.
This conjecture though, seems rather dubious. Firstly, cougar sightings are scattered all across the province, and are quite numerous, which casts considerable doubt on the notion that all of these pumas are merely escaped pets.
What is far more probable is that the cougars of eastern North America were never fully extirpated, only severely endangered, and are now staging something of a comeback.
The eastern cougar is in fact listed as an endangered species in Canada, and local lore as related by old-timers holds that remnant cougar populations have always existed in the remote interior regions of New Brunswick, as well as the Appalachian Mountains.
Bruce S. Wright argued in his 1972 book, The Eastern Panther: A Question of Survival, that the elusive cat had not been entirely extirpated. Wright detailed extensive eyewitness accounts of cougars tracks, and found other evidence of wild cougars, such as dens.
More recently, a story by Bob Reguly in the sportsman magazine Outdoor Canada discussed the discovery of cougars’ tracks and dens in Ontario (one such sight was in Niagara), and quoted several MNR officials as saying they believe some wild cougars still exist in Ontario.
Finally, this past summer a column by myself appeared in The Tribune detailing my own ongoing quest to find cougars in the Wainfleet bog.
When the recent reports of a cougar emerged in Pelham, it created a rather hysterical reaction. The Niagara Regional Police sent a detective to investigate, the MNR set up cameras on a property where sightings occured, and the town even hired a “professional” trapper to find the beast.
I thought I might take some nocturnal excursions of my own in a location I suspected was prime cougar habitat.
And sure enough, sometime past midnight, with my whole body trembling (from the cold of course) I seemingly at last crossed paths with a cougar. In the darkness, I could not see it: but evidently, I had startled it from a fresh kill.
Not one to disturb a cougar on the prowl, after a brief investigation, I decided to leave and let the cougar be.
Hopefully, all of Niagara’s residents will leave these magnificent animals unharmed and allow this wildlife success story to continue. After all, it is against the law to kill an endangered species.