Why were two young cougars killed in Ocean Falls this winter?

The recent killing (November 25th) of two young cougars by a Conservation Officer in Ocean Falls, B.C., has highlighted the complicated relationship between wild carnivores and humans. This particular wild carnivore, the cougar, Puma concolor, is extremely rare to encounter despite its relatively widespread distribution here in B.C. The largest feline in North America, this elusive creature generally makes its living in the dense forest stalking black-tailed deer and elk, but will dine on small and large prey (porcupine to mountain goat), and will make use of marine resources if necessary. In Canada, B.C. and Alberta offer the best and last hope for these cats in the form of large tracts of habitat on public lands. Due to hunting, persecution, and habitat loss, they have been extirpated from the rest of the country.

In the case of the Ocean Falls cougars, the young cubs and their mother had been seen roaming in the small coastal village for about a week, between the nearby salmon river and abandoned and occupied buildings. The cats had, in their last few days, been feeding on a harbour seal, which they had dragged up onto a private dock near the Marine Harvest (salmon aquaculture) hatchery facility.

The once bustling mill town is surrounded by unroaded wilderness and is now populated by up to 200 people in the summer months, but only around 25 residents in the winter months. By several residents’ reports, this has been a low abundance year in Ocean Falls: poor salmon return, not many deer being seen. While it is not unheard of for cougars to consume seals, it is generally a last resort. It would appear the mother cougar may have moved her family into the village in desperation to find a food supply. Residents had seen the mother in the area for the last two years, and unfortunately, in desperate times she knew that food could be found in this settlement. Residents describe poor waste management, especially in the summer months when the population swells and garbage often is left behind or unattended, and some residents are known to feed wildlife from their porches. The Marine Harvest facility is likely an attractant as well.

Although the health of cougar populations is unknown in B.C., there are no protections for them, and provincial policy is not to attempt relocation when they come into contact with humans. Lesley Fox, executive director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals notes that when it comes to cougars, officers may use lethal force to deal with a non-violent potential conflict situation, “but are not first required to enact preventative measures, work with municipalities or homeowners to address attractants, or utilize non-lethal hazing techniques.” In an open letter to Minister of Environment Mary Polak, she writes that the B.C. policy should mandate that all non-lethal options are to be exhausted prior to escalation  rather than every option left as discretionary.

Sadly, by the time Conservation Officers are called into a wildlife situation, often the wildlife concerned are past a point of habituation (when a wild animal no longer presents natural behaviours towards humans, is no longer fearful). Habitat protection and restoration, proper management of and enforcement of waste disposal, and public education are all ways to prevent unnecessary killing of wildlife. Preventing wildlife from becoming habituated in the first place is paramount: by practicing responsible waste management, minimizing attractants (for prey and predators) in one’s yard, and actively deterring wildlife if necessary with high and/or electrified fencing, noise-makers, lights, dogs and so on, are all responsibilities that come with the privilege of living in proximity to wild creatures and wilderness.

As Ocean Falls resident Gladys Miller wrote about the incident, “Animals always seem to be on the short end when we humans go into their environment and change it to suit us. I was truly in awe at having seen these beautiful creatures in their natural setting. One of the main reasons my husband and I moved to Ocean Falls was to be near and observe nature at its best. However, clearcutting by logging companies in the surrounding areas has displaced many animals and birds, which might contribute to their ‘unnatural behaviour’ ”.

Written by Megan Fee, Pacific Wild
Photos by Gladys Miller

Further reading:

Wainwright, C.J., C.T. Darimont, and P.C. Paquet. 2010. British Columbia’s Neglected Carnivore: a Conservation Assessment and Conservation Planning Guide for Cougars. Version 01. Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, BC.

Province of B.C., Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Resource Operations. 2016. Preventing and Responding to Conflicts with Large Carnivores. Procedure Manual Vol. 4, Section 7, Subsection 04.04.1.