Human impact on cougars has been significant both historically and currently. Learn how we have affected cougar habitat and range, as well as how levels of acceptance of living with cougars has changed over the past century.
Cougars once existed in all areas of America, from north to south and east to west. European explorers felt cougars were a threat to people and livestock and their hatred toward cougars and other predators led to establishing bounties. For instance, in Southern California during the 1500s, the bounty of one bull for every cougar killed was put in place.
Over the years, bounties were established throughout the rest of North America. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hunters began to specialize in cougar hunting and became experts in doing so. These experts also introduced the use of hounds in cougar hunting. The result was that cougars became near extinct in eastern Canada.
In the early 1900s, some unlikely advocates from various sportsman clubs began to protest the eradication of wildlife. These sportsman clubs established hunting areas and wildlife habitats, as well as lobbied to restrict when and where cougars could be hunted. The preservation movement provided the cougar with protected areas and began educating the general public on cougars. This brought tourists into wilderness areas and began changing people’s perspectives on this wild cat.
The history that led to the extinction of cougars in eastern Canada can be traced back to early times when European settlers first arrived in the Americas. The landscape in Europe was exceptionally manicured and cleared of forests and wildlife. When Europeans arrived in what is now known as Canada, they felt the wilderness in the new world was untidy, inconvenient for travel, hindered the ability to keep livestock and grow crops, and they wanted the landscape to resemble that of Europe. Their views towards predators were generally poor, and they felt that cougars, and other apex predators, endangered the lives of people and livestock. In essence, they wanted them eradicated.
The desire to have a more manicured landscape in Canada led to the start of deforestation, which ultimately led to substantial habitat loss for the native wildlife that inhabited the forests. In addition, bounties were established to hunt cougars, wolves, and bears. As a result, the wildlife numbers began to decline.
At first, cougars fared better than wolves and bears because of their solitary nature, large territories, and avoidance of people in general. Cougars were not easily trapped and avoided poisonous bait. This spurred some hunters to become experts in cougar hunting. These hunters devoted their lives to hunting cougars and the start of hound hunting began.
In the early 1900s, it was estimated that governments spent upwards of one million dollars per year to keep their bounty-hunting programs going. Eventually, the land in the east became uninhabitable for cougars as hunting, hounding, trapping, poisoning, and deforestation efforts continued, and human populations and activity increased in their natural habitats¹. This, combined with the general belief that predators reduced the amount of wild game, led conservationists at the time to believe that the eradication was justified.
In 1934, the first scientific studies, headed by Frank Hibben, began in New Mexico and Arizona, and in 1964, Maurice Hornocker began using hounds to capture, mark, and study cougar behaviour. In the 1970s, the cougar was designated as big game, which gave them some protection from being hunted. In 1978, cougars were considered endangered, which again changed in 1998 to “data deficient.” In 2011, the Eastern cougar was declared extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Services.
During the past 100 years, there have been a few cougar sightings in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, although it is felt that these cougars may have been let go or escaped from captivity. There have been some cougar sightings in Manitoba, but it is unclear if the cougars are exploring or if a breeding population exists. In Saskatchewan, cougars can be found mainly in the Cypress Hills area, and it is believed that approximately 350 cougars call Saskatchewan home. In Alberta and British Columbia, the cougar population is considered stable.
Humans and cougars have a long history of coexisting in the same environment. Although coexistence between humans and apex predators has been successful at times, there are growing fears of cougars. As we move our homes and recreational activities more and more into cougar territories, it is our responsibility to ensure we create a safe environment for both ourselves and cougars who call these places home.
Over the years, researchers have been gaining knowledge of the cougar’s habitats and behaviours, and attitudes towards the cougar are slowly becoming more positive. A recent study done at the urban-wildlife interface of Calgary, Alberta, surveyed 1,500 people regarding the cougars in their area. The area had a cougar population of approximately 68, and depredation was uncommon. The survey results indicated that 40% of those surveyed had observed cougars in the wild, 65% felt that cougars posed a threat to themselves and livestock, and 73% felt there was a cougar problem in their area¹. This indicates that cougars' perceived risk is possibly much higher than their actual risk.
Livestock owners were strongly opposed to government interference in handling problem wildlife on their land, and most respondents felt relocating problem cougars was the best management strategy¹. Respondents felt optimistic about coexisting with cougars and “that though living with cougars poses certain risks, they could learn to accept those risks and coexist with the presence of cougars in the foothills” ¹. Most respondents felt there was a lack of education and public involvement in wildlife management.
We are responsible for developing strategies to protect our livestock, pets, and ourselves from the wildlife in the areas where we choose to live and recreate. It is also our responsibility to protect the cougar’s natural habitat and native prey while decreasing our negative reactions to the cougar’s natural behaviour. This can be achieved by adequately preparing ourselves. Coexistence is possible and creates a better life for all.
Various management strategies are used to minimize the potential for conflict between cougars and people. Learn about cougar hunting, hound hunting, aversive conditioning, human-cougar conflict resolution and public education programs.
This is the end of our Cougar series in the Knowledge Base. We hope you feel more informed, and better prepared if you were to encounter a cougar.