Wider Horizons

Dave Haight doesn’t much mind being surrounded by 22 cougars in an enclosed space at Lethbridge College.dave haight After all, they’re frozen solid at -20C and, to be fair, Dave doesn’t appear all that appetizing anyway.

Haight, Cousins Science Centre lab coordinator, is in the process of giving the deceased predators new leases on life: their worldly purpose, playing a key role in the environmental food chain, is about to meet the world of academia.

By the time they leave the college, the cougars will have:

  • donated their DNA for the cellular-molecular study of their species

  • given students in the Fish and Wildlife Technology program specimens to conduct necropsies

  • allowed Conservation Enforcement students to determine if their demise was caused by illegal means

  • provided their skulls for School of Environmental Science’s collection

Not quite the nine lives felines are supposed to enjoy, but close enough and Lethbridge College students will have been given the chance to get their hands dirty in a way no textbook can provide.

Knowing the DNA signature of each cougar helps scientists and human/wildlife conflict specialists determine what the population looks like and whether management and pro efforts are in the best interests of both. Sound scientific information about the population makes for better decisions.

“When our students learn how to obtain this information, this knowledge and the data collected from these cougars can be applied to research and could become an information base for protection and management of the species in Alberta,” says Sharie Cousins, Conservation Enforcement program instructor. “The cougar may benefit from this information now and in the future in an indirect way. For example, the DNA signature becomes available for things such as behavioural profiles of known species that become involved in a human conflict.

“We can tell if the behavior of the cougar is unique to a family line and specific territory, or whether all cougars exhibit this behaviour.”

The college receives the cougars – and bears, wolves, coyotes, big horn sheep and other members of the province’s food chain – from Alberta Fish and Wildlife. Normally, students work on hair samples taken from barbed-wire collection sights, but the chance to work on a whole animal can’t be equaled.

Most ended their lives as felons, running afoul of human habitation from Grande Prairie to the Cypress Hills. Fish and Wildlife Division will do what it can to protect cougars from poachers and other untoward human interaction, but when the big cats become a threat to an established settlement, the fate of the animal must be determined by officers authorized under the Wildlife Act. One was trapped in the Cypress Hills town site after bringing down a deer on someone’s front lawn; it’s that sort of behaviour that gets noticed by the authorities.

“With no competition from other wildlife such as wolves, the cougar population there remains healthy” says Haight, who prepares the carcasses for student studies. “The big males typically push the younger males out of their territories, so the range continues to expand. For example, in Cypress Hills, the cougar seems to be increasing its range into Saskatchewan. In the spring, with deer and elk giving birth to fawns and calves, a healthy cougar becomes a killing machine.”

Cousins notes the carcasses are all carefully recorded and handled according to provincial law. Without valid licencing, it’s illegal to possess items such as these cougar hides and skulls which, after college staff and students use up the nine lives, are shipped back to the regions from which they came or disposed of lawfully.

“It may not seem like a big deal for someone to have a cougar hide or skull, but with no lawful means to possess it, having one illegally erodes the basic concept that wildlife belongs to all Albertans and cannot be owned,” says Cousins. Badly behaved cougars providing information on their peers and helping to educate a new generation of environmental scientists: it’s another way Lethbridge College uses innovation in its role as a leader in the community.


Species: Puma concolor - neat stuff we discovered about cougars

Range: six subspecies are found from the Yukon to the Andes; the subspecies in Canada is Puma concolor cougar. While they frequent Western North America, they do exist in the east from the Maritimes south, primarily in Florida. They have several alternate names, most commonly mountain lion (Canada) and puma (United States).

Size: cougars are the second-largest cat in North America, behind the jaguar. In southern Alberta, weights average 70 kg for males and 40 kg for females. They are larger in northern climes and smaller toward the equator. Colour: cougars run from reddish-brown to grey-brown with white on the underside, and have a black-tipped tail.

Family life: cougars are solitary animals; females live with their cubs (born one to six at a time) for up to two years. They are the only predator in Alberta able to give birth year round. Life expectancy is eight to 13 years, although they can reach 20 in captivity. Cougars are among three wild cats native to Canada, along with the lynx and the bobcat; the latter two are more closely related to domestic cats. Cougars are at the top of the food chain, but share that billing with grey wolves and bears.

Prey: cougars feed on deer, elk, bighorn sheep, domestic livestock. They’ll also eat smaller prey. Unlike other predators in Alberta, cougars can eat only meat. They do not recognize humans as prey and while there are instances of interaction with humans, they are rare: some 20 deaths have been confirmed in the last 120 years in North America. In Canada, the highest incidence of cougar attacks occurs on Vancouver Island; most victims are children.

Cougar confrontations can be thwarted by acting calm and speaking confidently. Make yourself appear as large as you can to convince the cougar you are a threat rather than a meal. Allow it an avenue of escape. Do not turn your back or run, but back away slowly. If you are attacked, fight back; do not play dead.

Conservation: cougars are not considered endangered and are listed as “least concerned.”


Wider Horizons
Lethbridge College
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