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Ottawa Citizen

The cougar is out there

With 30 pieces of evidence in its paws, the Ministry of Natural Resources has concluded that these big cats are indeed roaming our province. Sneh Duggal reports.

By Sneh Duggal

For decades, it has eluded humanity. Sighted but never photographed, its existence in Ontario has been debated by amateur naturalist and professional biologist alike.

But now, after an ambitious four-year study, the Ministry of Natural Resources has come to a definitive conclusion: the eastern cougar will be lumped with the sasquatch no longer.

The study collected 30 pieces of evidence, including photos of tracks, samples of scat and DNA.

“It verified that cougars do exist in Ontario,” said Rick Rosatte, senior research scientist with the ministry in Peterborough.

Yet, on one important count, the beast still confounds the modern world. Although the ministry set up cameras in 30 locations at any given point during the past two years, they failed to capture the cat in pixels. At this point, an unmistakable cougar image would be to a zoologist what nude photos of the Royal Family would be to a British tabloid.

“We’ve got photos of everything from bear and deer to fishers and humans, but so far, no photos of the cougar,” Rosatte said.

Tracking the cougar was part of a wildlife diversity study the ministry began in 2006. Studying the cougars involved three phases — investigating and attempting to verify potential sightings, testing tissue samples from various animals for traces of cougar DNA and setting up a camera wherever there was a verified cougar sighting.

For the most part, the cameras were evenly distributed throughout the province, but there are six in the Peterborough area because of the numerous sightings there. The last confirmed sightings were near Kenora, Sault Ste. Marie and Lindsay, where cougar tracks were found between March and September last year, said Rosatte.

Cougars are difficult animals to study because they travel up to 50 kilometres a night to find prey and can claim between 500 and 1,000 square kilometres in territory.

“The odds of getting a cougar photo is very slim, because they travel so much,” Rosatte said.

The Ontario Puma Foundation, which often collaborates with the ministry, has been placing motion sensor cameras in different parts of the province since 2003. The most recent focus has been on the area southwest of Collingwood.

The foundation’s president, Stuart Kenn, said while cougar sightings are frequently reported, about 95 per cent of them are misidentifications.

He said animals commonly mistaken for cougars include house cats, coyotes, wolves, dogs and even squirrels and that “puma mania” starts when a few individuals in an area believe that they have spotted a cougar.

“People see pumas falling out of trees, they’ll see a flash in a bush and say ‘Oh, I saw a puma’,” Kenn said.

There have been about six reported sightings near Arnprior during the past month, said Kenn, although the quality of the descriptions varies.

Rosatte said the population of these animals is yet to be determined.

“We have no idea how many cougars there are in Ontario; we know there are some, but they are not abundant,” he said.

Cougars were hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s, according to the Ontario Puma Foundation, which estimates that there are currently about 550 cougars in the province.

Rosatte said the existing population could be the result of a small native population that was left within the province, cougars coming into Ontario from the west, cougars that escaped or were released from captivity or a combination of these theories.

Kenn said the best way to study these animals would be to track them down with dogs like researchers do in Wyoming, but since the province has listed the cougar as an endangered species, this is not allowed.

Rosatte said the ministry’s cameras will be in place until at least March 2011, and after that he hopes to publish the data from the study.

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