Rare cougars in Northwestern Ontario National Park, like ‘a needle in a haystack’
From caribou to flying squirrels, Daniel Pouliot, director of research and conservation at Pukaswka National Park, has seen many interesting animals captured by the park’s surveillance cameras in northwestern Ontario.
But nothing like a cougar.
Cameras show the big cat in two locations in the park, along the north shore of Lake Superior, south of Marathon – in December 2020 and then in January 2021.
In a recent interview with CBC News, Pouliot called the footage provided by Parks Canada « incredible. »
- LISTEN | Park researcher Daniel Pouliot tells Superior Morning what makes these images of cougars so special:
Superior Morning8:03Daniel Pouliot: watching cougars
« I’m really skeptical, » he said. « I’ve been aware of the cougar’s story over the years.
« We sometimes have visitors to the park, or in fact to the area, who come and say, ‘Hey, I saw tracks’ and listened to their story, » Pouliot said. « But I was looking for hard evidence. And now it was undeniable that it was a cougar.
« And I was very excited, very happy to finally be able to see and confirm an actual sighting. »
The first set of images of cougars were posted on the park’s social media earlier this week. Pouliot said it took some time to find and post the footage due to the large number of them captured by trail cameras.
« The technician looks at each frame and defines what it is, » he said. « Is it a bear? Is it the moose? And in the end, there’s a report.
« What was a surprise this time around was going through those thousands of photos and seeing 20 of a cougar. »
The images are the only evidence of a cougar in Pukaskwa since it opened in 1983.
The first photos released by the park were taken in an area called Swallow Cove, which sits along the shoreline about four kilometers beyond the end of the park’s coastal hiking trail.
The other photos, which Pouliot said will be released soon, were taken about 30 kilometers further north. They show the cougar traveling in the opposite direction.
‘Extremely rare’ cougar sightings
The cougar, also known as the cougar and mountain lion, has acquired an almost mythical status in the region over the years.
There are many sightings of the big cat, which can grow up to two meters in length and weigh over 60 kilograms. But the actual proof is another story.
“Cougar sightings are extremely rare,” a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks told CBC News via email. “Each year, the ministry may receive a few reports, but photographic evidence is rarely available to confirm these sightings.
« Cougars found in Ontario, in addition to being native, may be from western North America or may be escaped or released pets. Ministry staff may conduct a site investigation to confirm findings. reports. »
Pouliot said park staff will work to determine if the cougar spotted in Pakaskwa was transient or if it now resides in the 1,900 square kilometer park.
« What we know so far is that there won’t be an established population, a breeding population in northwestern Ontario, and it looks like that could be [an] individual traveling across the landscape,” he said. “Cougars have a huge territory, especially the male.
“The territory can cover almost 500 square kilometers,” Pouliot said. « They are solitary. They are very shy too. For a big cat, they are very good at avoiding humans.
« It’s a needle in a haystack, basically. »
Pouliot said the sightings could lead to more research because if the cougar decided to stay in the area, it would impact the ecology of the park.
« If the animal were just traveling across the landscape, it might go after a few moose, hares or beavers and then move on, and then the impact would be very limited, » he said. « But if you establish [it] as a predator, well, we could think of competition with bears, wolves, potentially having a local impact on moose, for example, so that could be a topic for future research. »
The ministry spokesperson said a few cougar sightings have been investigated in recent years:
- In December 2021, a video shared on social media showing what appeared to be a cougar traversing a distance on horseback north of Kenora, Ontario. Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry staff visited the site and collected DNA samples.
- Trail cameras in the Thunder Bay area captured a series of photos of a cougar between November 2020 and January 2021. Department staff were able to collect DNA evidence, confirming the cougar was male.
- In March 2017, the frozen carcass of a cougar was found northwest of Thunder Bay. The animal was emaciated and likely starved to death, and genetic testing showed it was closely related to cougars found in the Black Hills region of Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska.
The size of Ontario’s cougar population remains unknown, but the species is listed as endangered in the province.
« In Ontario, cougars are most likely thought to live in northern Ontario due to the remoteness of the habitat, » the statement said. « There have, however, been several reports of sightings in the southern part of the province. »