Wildlife management can be a divisive topic. There have been many cougar management strategies implemented over the years in it's broad range throughout North and South America; with and without success. And more often than not, wildlife management is based on human needs rather than the needs of the animal being managed.
As an incredibly adaptable species, cougars are found from northern Alberta and British Columbia all the way to the southernmost tip of South America. In keeping with this range of habitat, various management strategies have evolved to minimize the potential for conflict between cougars and people. Some strategies have more historical or cultural roots, while others take a contemporary approach to management, such as guided photography tourism. Each strategy has a different level of effectiveness, humaneness, and ethical consideration for managing cougars. Education, however, is key for successfully managing our relationship with cougars.
Aversive conditioning is applying a negative stimulus when an animal exhibits an undesirable behaviour to modify or abolish that behaviour¹. Although aversive conditioning seems to be a non-harmful way to stop an animal from behaving undesirably, this strategy can be challenging to implement with a cougar.
In most instances, it is not the act of the cougar hunting that needs to change, but the location it uses to do its hunting¹. Aversive conditioning needs to be done at the precise time when the cougar attacks or enters an area¹. This timing is difficult to predict and, therefore, aversive conditioning is generally ineffective in changing the cougar’s behaviour¹. It can, however, show the cougar that humans can be a dangerous threat and possibly reduce the likelihood of human-cougar interactions.
One study found that removing a cougar’s cache site was somewhat effective in encouraging a cougar to leave an area. However, again, it would be difficult to track and find all of the cougar cache sites in an area which results in further limited potential of this strategy¹. Another critical factor in reducing cougar-human conflict is making urban landscapes undesirable so they do not attract cougars and their natural prey. Other proactive cougar coexistence strategies include maintaining a large area with limited human activity where cougars can live naturally.
The history between people and dogs can be dated back as far as 20,000 years ago. Approximately 12,000 years ago, it was thought that people allowed wolves to stay near their camps, feeding and befriending them until selective breeding resulted in the domesticated dog¹. Archaeologists have found evidence that during these early times, dogs were used as guard dogs, hunting companions, and to haul heavy goods¹.
Around 9,000 years ago, people began intentionally breeding dogs to get specific characteristics¹. This was when evidence of the first herding dogs emerged. This breeding trend was seen throughout the world, as there is evidence that the ancient Chinese used dogs for hunting and companionship; the ancient Egyptians mummified and buried dogs with their owners; Socrates felt that dogs were true philosophers; the ancient Romans had guard dogs and used dogs during hunting; and during the 14th century, the nobles used dogs on their hunting expeditions². Today, dogs are bred and trained for specific purposes, including hunting.
In British Columbia, there are approximately 19 hunting outfitter companies which offer the use of hounds at a cost of about $100/dog/day. In BC, dogs are permitted to hunt all game, but must be leashed when hunting deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, mountain goats, and caribou3. The dogs are unleashed when hunting lynx, bobcats, black bears, and cougars3.
In Alberta, the use of hounds is limited and only permitted during the winter hunting season from December 1st to the last day in February4. Landowners are prohibited from using hounds to hunt cougars on their land4. They also cannot trap cougars without a license on their land⁴. Other areas, such as California, Oregon, and Washington, have made it illegal to use dogs for hunting cougars5.
Ethical hunters follow the unofficial rules of fair chase. Fair chase means that hunters do not use any unfair advantages, such as cougar hounds, over wild game (i.e. cougars)6. This ‘balances’ the skills and equipment of hunters with the animal’s ability to escape6. Fair chase also includes not using motorized vehicles, electronic mating calls, or shooting animals in a confined space.
In Alberta, the cougar population is controlled mainly through hunting seasons to maintain a population level of 1,500 cougars throughout the province¹. The Government of Alberta claims that hunting is an appropriate cougar management strategy because it²:
Alberta has 32 Cougar Management Areas (CMA), each establishing its own cougar hunting quota. The quota for hunting males and females may differ in any given CMA. If quotas have been reached, no hunting is allowed in that area until the next hunting season. Hunters must check with the CMA to determine if hunting is permitted at that time.
Depending on the CMA, the fall hunting season runs from August 25th to December 31st and the winter season runs from December 25th to the end of February. Rules for fall and winter hunting vary. During the fall season, from September 1st to December 31st for some areas and August 25th to December 31st for others, hounds are not permitted to be used. Hunters are permitted to kill one male or female cougar, but no quotas are set. Cougars killed during the fall do not count toward the year’s harvesting quota.
During the winter, from December 31st to the last day in February, hunters with residential, non-residential, and cougar special licenses are permitted to hunt in the CMA areas until the quotas have been reached. The exceptions are outfitter companies and non-resident hunters to which the quota system does not apply². Cougar hunters may also use hounds from November 30th to the last day of February.
Electronic calls, baiting, and trapping cougars are prohibited, as is hunting spotted kittens or moms with spotted kittens. Even though it is unlawful to snare cougars, they are often caught in snares that have been set for other fur-bearing animals, such as coyotes and wolves. A hunter is not required to harvest the meat from a cougar, but it is unlawful to let the cougar hide waste. All cougar kills must be registered with proof of whether the cougar is male (testicles) or female (teat or mammary glands), and a premolar tooth must be extracted to help determine its age².
In British Columbia, the cougar population is managed through hunting and public education.
Hunting in BC is managed as a general open hunting system in which every hunter is allowed to harvest only two cougars, but the number of hunters allowed is unlimited¹. There is no provincial control over where cougars can be hunted, and there are no provincial quotas set for how many cougars may be hunted per year. Bait, electronic calling, and hound hunting are also permitted¹.
In BC, hunting spotted kittens or moms with spotted kittens is illegal¹. In 2020, it became illegal to pursue cougars without killing them². A hunter is now required to remove the neck and ribs of the cougar, which is considered edible meat².
Education is also key in BC to help establish positive human-cougar interactions. For example, Wildlife BC established the “Bare Campsite” program, which enforces that no unsecured or unattended food or garbage at a campsite is permitted³. Before the establishment of this program, 8-10 bears were euthanized every month³. The “Bare Campsite” program has drastically reduced human-wildlife conflicts in campgrounds, which, in turn, has drastically reduced the need for euthanasia. A similar educational program, tailored to cougars and relevant coexistence strategies, may be appropriate to reduce the need for cougar hunting as a management strategy in BC.
Some programs within British Columbia that offer a proactive, solution-based approach to managing cougar conflict include:
As we expand our homes and activities more into cougar territory, human-cougar conflicts are bound to increase as both people and cougars try to adapt and coexist. For many years, the management of cougars has mainly focused on hunting. In early times, bounties were placed on cougars in an attempt to eradicate the cougar population. Today, cougars are still hunted as many feel that hunting helps to maintain healthy cougar populations and reduces cougar-human conflict. However, is this an effective way to manage the cougar population?
Evidence shows that hunting can have the opposite effect and increase human-cougar conflict. Hunters typically prefer to hunt the large, healthy “trophy” cougars. The loss of these more mature cats results in the loss of highly experienced cougars. Not only does this disrupt the cougar’s social structure, it also causes an imbalance in the age structure of the cougars in an area. As the mature cougars decrease in numbers, the younger, inexperienced juveniles begin to move into unoccupied territories. These inexperienced cougars find hunting more difficult and, therefore, tend to target easier prey, such as livestock. This alone increases the likelihood of conflicts between cougars, people, and livestock.
A study completed in 2016 demonstrates the link between high hunting and high cougar-human conflict¹. This study used 30 years of data collected in 5 regions in British Columbia:
In studying the data collected, the researchers found that all five areas showed human-cougar conflict increased with increased hunting. The study also showed that the skulls of the conflict cats were much smaller than those of the hunted cougars, again suggesting the link between younger cougars and conflict. With an increase in cougar hunting, an increase in conflict was also reported with males in all five areas and females in two out of the five areas. Increased hunting during the previous year also correlated with more conflict in the following year. The Thompson-Okanagan and Vancouver Island regions showed the most conflict after a period of high cougar hunting efforts.
Evidence points to increases in conflict instead of the decrease in human-cougar conflict that might be expected with more hunting of cougars. Hunting tends to eliminate the more experienced cougars who teach the younger cougars what and how to hunt. The young cougars tend to be more curious and bolder than the more mature cougars, which can also lead to increased conflict with people.
Rethinking hunting as a management strategy is necessary for reducing cougar-human conflict and taking a much-needed step toward proactive coexistence.
There is a long history of puma (cougar) and livestock conflict in Patagonia. As a result, ranchers in the area held a very negative attitude toward pumas, and the majority felt hunting was the only solution. In 1980, it became illegal to hunt cougars in the Chilean part of Patagonia and intervention was needed to stabilize cougar populations.
The Laguna Amarga Ranch, which spans 6,662 acres and borders Torres del Paine National Park, was established as a puma-protected area and now offers cougar tourism experiences¹. The Laguna Amarga Ranch currently has one of the highest puma populations in the world, as pumas can thrive without the threat of human persecution. Some cougars feel safe enough to sleep, hunt, and raise their young despite human presence².
The puma-human conflict has been changed mainly due to the introduction of cougar tourism in the form of guided photography tours and vacation packages. These tourism experiences allow people to walk among and observe the pumas in their natural habitat. These tourism experiences also educate visitors about puma behaviours and habitat, which, in turn, increases tolerance and gives an overall increased positive attitude toward the pumas. Tourism also brings much-needed revenue into the area.
Predator tourism is not an all-inclusive solution to human-puma conflict. Ranchers not close to the tourist locations still suffer from the loss of livestock and have increased economic hardship from these losses. This has put a wedge between the ranchers who benefit from predator tourism and those who do not.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is responsible for mountain lion (cougar) management in California. In California, mountain lions are legally classified as a specially protected species under the California Wildlife Protection Act of 1990, specifically Proposition 117¹. This legal classification makes it “unlawful to injure, possess, transport, import, or sell any mountain lion or any part or product thereof”¹.
Due to their protected status, there is no hunting season or take limits for mountain lions in California¹. That said, there are three exceptions to this rule¹:
To have a depredation permit issued from pet/livestock mountain lion conflicts, landowners are legally required to deploy non-lethal means to deter mountain lions². Once two non-lethal attempts have been made, a depredation permit will be issued. This is known as the “three-strike” rule.
In the case of human-mountain lion conflicts in California, steps are taken to allow the animal back into habitat or relocate if possible. There are a series of steps that CDFW takes if a conflict arises. First, if a mountain lion is deemed a 'No Harm-No Foul" animal and does not pose a threat, CDFW will work to encourage the animal back to its nearest suitable habitat¹. Second, in the case that the mountain lion is bold, inappropriate, aggressive, or poses a risk, it will be destroyed¹. Third, if a mountain lion is non-releasable (i.e. due to injury, disease, habituation, etc.), the CDFW will work to find permanent placement of the animal in an appropriate facility¹.
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.