Return of the Eastern Cougar?

For the Welland Tribune: by Adam Shoalts

With my sturdy walking stick in hand, I wandered alone through a labyrinth of lush foliage, inhabited by venomous snakes, prowling panthers, and blood-sucking insects.
The heat and humidity felt suffocating.

Was I in the South American jungle? No, that trip of mine, alas, lies further down the road.

I was in fact, still right here in the Niagara Peninsula, somewhere deep in the Wainfleet bog: the largest protected area in the peninsula. It consists of 801 hectares of land owned by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Auhtority, as well as a smaller tract belonging to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).

I am familiar with the Wainfleet Bog, having worked one summer for the MNR during which I spent several weeks conducting soil sampling in the bog.

The Wainfleet Bog is the largest remaining bog in all of southern Ontario and constitutes the greatest stretch of unbroken greenery within the confines of Niagara. It contains an astonishing diversity of flora, including 350 different species of bog plants.

The bog is home to the eastern Massassuga rattlesnake, an endangered species and the only venomous snake native to Ontario.

However, rattlesnakes, while fascinating in their own right, were not the object of my visit to the bog on this occasion.

I ventured into the deciduous forests of the bog to seek out evidence of the elusive eastern cougar, which officially has been extirpated from this province for nearly a century. Cougars, also variously known as panthers, mountain lions or pumas, once inhabited virtually the whole of this continent, save for the far north.

An adult male cougar can weigh up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds), and in western North America, where cougars remain relatively widespread, cougar attacks on humans occur periodically, sometimes resulting in death.

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.

The last known shooting of an indigenous cougar in Ontario took place in 1884, in Creemore. In 1908, the naturalist C.W. Nash’s book, Manual of Vertebrates in Ontario, was published, in which he asserted that the cougar had been extirpated from Ontario.

That has remained the MNR’s official position on cougars. For decades many experts even believed the eastern cougar was extinct.

However, today some MNR biologists and many others firmly believe cougars still exist in the wilds of Ontario.

The evidence to support this belief is quite convincing and manifold. In 1995 scat discovered in northwestern Ontario was identified by a DNA analysis as cougar scat, and only a few weeks ago the MNR confirmed that scat discovered in the Wainfleet Bog was positively identified as cougar scat.

Hence the reason I set out alone into the bog, hoping to uncover further evidence of these magnificent predators, or perhaps even catch a glimpse of one.

While I was unsuccessful in my quest on this particular day, in Ontario more than 500 people have reported cougar sightings since 2002.

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 resurgence of the cougar.

Some sceptics 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 long existed in the remote interior regions of New Brunswick, as well as the Appalachian Mountains.

Bruce S. Cartwright, a naturalist and conservationist, argued in his 1972 book, The Eastern Panther: A Question of Survival, that the elusive cat had not been entirely extirpated. right detailed extensive eyewitness accounts of cougars, photogaphed cougar 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 cougar’s tracks and dens in southern Ontario (one such site was in Niagara), and quoted several MNR officials as saying they believe some wild cougars still exist in Ontario.

As for myself, I want to believe in this wildlife success story, and intend to continue my solitary wanderings through the woods until I see one of these magnificent animals with my own eyes.