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Is a cougar still on the prowl in Niagara?

Tuesday September 23, 2014

By Greg Furminger
The Tribune

The shooting of a cougar at a Calgary hospital last week, and the trapping of one south of Hwy. 401 this summer, gives pause to think about Niagara’s most elusive feline.

The shooting of a cougar at a Calgary hospital last week, and the trapping of one south of Hwy. 401 this summer, gives pause to think about Niagara’s most elusive feline.

The cougar.

While DNA testing several years ago confirmed the presence of at least one cougar in south Niagara, there’s been no confirmation it’s still prowling about in the region’s wild.

Chris Davies, head of wildlife research for the Ontario Natural Resources Ministry and an adjunct professor at Trent University, says there’s a long-running joke with his colleagues about penning a book on the oft-talked about subject: "1,001 Reasons Why I Didn’t Get a Picture of the Cougar."

That’s not to be confused with the other phantom feline that has captured most of Niagara’s attention over the past decade. The so-called "black panther" — or some type of other exotic feline — that may have been seen in recent months. Niagara’s big, black cat sightings were most common in areas of Fort Erie in 2000 and 2001, but big cat sightings have been reported sporadically over the past decade.

An August 2010 story that ran in Niagara newspapers showed a sharp photo of what appeared to be a big, black cat caught on a hunter’s automatic “critter cam” in a farmer’s Wainfleet field in late April of that year.

In May 2011 a “black panther” was reported to have been seen roaming around Welland’s Dain City area, where it was also said to have been seen six months earlier.

More recently, on Feb. 12 of this year, a Pelham woman captured on film what she described as “a very large, large cat” walking opposite her Foss Rd. home in a wooded field that connects to a large pond where children skate in the winter and which backs onto Pelham’s Harold Black Park. "I am convinced it was either a panther or another large, black, exotic cat," Michelle Gretzinger says.

Her video posted to YouTube the next day and called "Big black cat in Fenwick" as of Monday had been viewed 65 times. It can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmc_HTrydLw.

Most recently, in early August, Pelham residents pointed to a large black cat as a possible killer of pet cats in the Welland Rd. and Effingham St. area.

Davies suggested coyotes as a possible culprit.

But back to the cougar.

The ministry classifies the Eastern cougar in this province as extinct. The last one was shot and killed near Collingwood in 1884.

But while it has been estimated there may be as many as 500 cougars now roaming Ontario, that’s within an area measuring 1.2 million square kilometres.

Those "free-ranging" cougars, Davies says, fit into three — maybe four — categories: the most likely being they are zoo escapees, were grown pets deliberately released into the wild or migrants from the midwest U.S.

The fourth possibility is that it "could be a remnant" of the native cougars that went extinct here in the 1800s.

While there has been solid evidence that they are in Ontario, there is nothing to suggest from where the cougars came.

Through DNA testing, the ministry confirmed that scat discovered in Wainfleet Bog in 2005 was that of a cougar.

A paper by the MNR’s top cougar man, Rick Rosatte — titled Evidence Confirms the Presence of Cougars (Puma concolor) in Ontario, Canada — shows 497 pieces of evidence confirmed that cougars were present in Ontario from 1991 to 2010, including scat, hair, DNA, tracks and photos. In 2006, Rosatte established a cougar research network consisting of 89 biologists and wildlife technicians. As part of its work, trail cameras were set up across Ontario by ministry staff. From more than 17,000 camera-nights between April 1, 2008, and Dec., 31, 2010, no definitive photographs of a cougar were captured.

That someone would photograph a cougar in Niagara, therefore, would be rare, too.

"It is really tricky because they’re elusive animals, they don’t want to be seen," says Tanya Pulfer, a former ministry worker now employed as a citizens science co-ordinator for Ontario Nature.

Pulfer routinely received calls about sightings in Ontario’s eastern townships. Many times submitted photos just don’t cut it in identifying the animal that had been seen.

"It’s really hard to tell from the trail pics you get," Pulfer says. "Even for the experts."

Face-to-face is the best determinant.

And that happened last Thursday in Alberta, when a tawny cougar seen lurking at a construction site before moving to the nearby grounds of the South Health Campus hospital in Calgary was shot dead by wildlife officers. The animal was possibly pushed toward the city by cold temperatures and a hankering for food.

Rosatte’s research found one hypothesis that cougars have immigrated into Ontario from the western U.S. states and western Canadian provinces. The cats are capable of moving 50 kilometres a night. His paper references one radio-collared cougar that had moved 960 km from South Dakota to Saskatchewan before it was shot in 2008. Another cougar from that same South Dakota study, he writes, travelled 1,060 km to Oklahoma.

Closer to home — in July, a full-sized cougar that had been seen wandering north of Grafton, east of Cobourg, was captured, but it had all the traits of a domesticated cougar, also known as a mountain lion or puma.

Davies says if anyone does see a big cat and is concerned about the safety of themselves or others, the first phone call made should be to police.

Calls can be made to the ministry, as well.

About five or six cougar sighting reports from across Ontario land on Davies’ desk each week.

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