B.C. cougar assessment: new technical report details population trends

Cougars are the most widespread large carnivore in the Americas, and British Columbia is home to one of the largest and most intact populations of any jurisdiction.  

A new technical report on the state of B.C.’s cougar population was delivered to the provincial government in December detailing their relative abundance and responses to human activities. The report, A Review of Cougar Biology and Management in British Columbia, authored by Garth Mowat, Siobhan Darlington, Steven Wilson, Luke Vander Vennen, TJ Gooliaff, and Stephen MacIver can be reviewed in its entirety here: A Review of Cougar Biology and Management in British Columbia 

Among the findings: 

  • Cougars occur throughout most of the southern half of the province and are expanding their range northward. Based on an extrapolation using capable deer habitat and estimated cougar densities, the provincial population is estimated to be 5000–7000 animals.  
  • As a top carnivore, cougars play an important functional role in many ecosystems. As a big game species, cougars provide an important hunting opportunity for resident and non-resident hunters in British Columbia. Cougar conflicts with people are common in British Columbia and injuries to people, although far less common, have been increasing over the last century. However, this increase may be at least in part due to better recording.  
  • Human fatalities are extremely rare; the last human fatality caused by a cougar in British Columbia was in the 1990s. Cougars killed in conflicts with people have occasionally exceeded 160 animals in a year and the average is about 100. Conflict kill rates appear to be related to population size. The Conservation Officer Service receives greater than 3 000 calls per year regarding cougar conflicts when populations are high. Hunting seasons in British Columbia are liberal relative to most other jurisdictions, but kittens and females accompanied by kittens are protected.  
  • Hunting is a significant source of mortality for cougars where it has been studied in British Columbia. Hunters kill an average of about 200 animals annually, and the kill occasionally exceeds 300. Hunting is largely focused on males and often leads to much lower male abundance and average age. Essentially no old males occur in heavily hunted populations. The more subtle effects of this male selection on population demography and the long-term abundance of females and young are not clear. In other jurisdictions, higher levels of infanticide have been documented in areas with high male harvest.  
  • Cougar populations appear to be correlated with prey abundance, and in some places, populations may be cyclic. Cougars demonstrated considerable resilience to intense persecution during the first half of the 20th century. In the interior of British Columbia, cougar numbers peaked in the late 1990s and then declined significantly, recovered in the mid-2000s, and peaked again in about 2010 before declining yet again. This cyclic pattern of abundance roughly correlates with deer hunter harvest and was also observed in other neighbouring jurisdictions that had different management strategies and harvest levels.  
  • A unique case of cougar population trend occurred on Vancouver Island where the population was thought to be very high in the latter half of the last century as a result of wolf eradication in the 1950s. When wolves recovered in the late 1970s, the cougar population declined and has remained low since then. 

The B.C. Wildlife Federation supports the Southern B.C. Cougar project, an independent research project that aims to address key knowledge gaps in cougar ecology in British Columbia’s southern Interior.  

The study is led by PhD student Siobhan Darlington supervisors Dr. Adam Ford and Dr. Karen Hodges and wildlife biologists. TJ Gooliaff, Patrick Stent of the Ministry of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, in partnership with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.   

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