Cougar (Felis concolor)
Alberta’s big game species are reputed as being some of the largest trophies in North America. The Cougar is noticeably included in this prestigious group. Much of western Alberta consists of rugged mountainous terrain that forms the continental divide separating B.C. and Alberta. To the east, the mountains give way to ridges, foothills and adjacent forests. This area provides ideal habitat for the largest cats North America has to offer, and terrain that differs greatly from most other places Cougars are hunted. One reason for this is biological; a result of what is known as Bergmann’s rule.
Bergmann's rule is an ecogeographic principle that states that: within a broadly distributed genus, species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions. Christian Bergmann further discovered that animals of the same species possess larger body mass at higher latitudes, due to the fact they need a larger core to survive in the colder, northern climate. Bergmann’s rule helps to explain why 3 Cougar of the current top 10 in Boone and Crockett’s Records of Big Game come from Alberta. The Cougar management strategy in Alberta has separate quotas for both males and females, greatly reducing the likelihood of over-harvest of either sex. The result is that hunters have an opportunity to hunt more mature and larger animals.
The Cougar occupies a wide range of vegetation types. It is found in habitats suitable for white-tailed deer and mule deer, the Cougar’s preferred prey. In western Canada, it inhabits forested fragments of foothills, mountains, and interior plateaus. Cover is probably the key habitat feature for a Cougar since it is important for stalking prey, establishing den sites, and for basic camouflage.
Cougars live within a “home range,” where their needs for food, water, and shelter are met. Within their home range, Cougars establish personal territories where they defend against intruders. Relatively solitary animals, they discourage other Cougars from entering their territory by leaving “scratches” or piles of leaves, pine needles, and dirt covered with urine and feces. They may also leave claw marks on trees near the edge of their territory. The scratches serve not only to delineate the boundary but also to attract females in heat. Males and females also patrol their territory, keeping track of changes in their immediate vicinity.
Male cougars usually have larger home ranges than females. The sizes of home ranges vary widely, but an average male home range would cover about 300 km2, and a female’s about half that. The territory of one male rarely overlaps with another male’s territory, but it may overlap that of several females. Where home ranges do overlap, Cougars still avoid each other and remain solitary, gathering only to mate.
As in any predator/prey relationship, Cougar densities are intimately related to prey population. Deer, moose and elk populations (the Cougar’s most common prey) are at all time highs in much of the province, resulting in increased densities of the associated predators. When all factors are taken into account, Alberta emerges as THE destination for a hunter to harvest the Cougar of his dreams.
Cougars are extremely elusive and usually avoid direct contact with people. Masters of camouflage, they often remain hidden when approached closely on foot. While tracking a cougar during winter, a researcher stepped within but 1m of its hiding place beneath a large spruce tree before the cat bounded out of its hiding place, racing away. Tracks and tail drag marks in the snow or mud are usually the only evidence confirming the presence of these secretive, rarely seen animals.
Cougar hunting in Alberta occurs from December 1st through the end of February, and few locales are without snow for very long during this period. A Cougar hunt in Alberta usually begins with the search for a fresh track. While optimum conditions might result from recent snowfall, a seasoned veteran will seldom give up on a large track without putting in a considerable effort… regardless of conditions.
Although the basic game plan is the same for most hunts, the execution and details of each hunt can be as unpredictable as Alberta’s winter weather. Even when circumstances seem perfect, the outcome is never a forgone conclusion. Seeking a successful Cougar hunt in Alberta is met best through good planning, good outfitting, and strong perseverance. Meeting a Cougar in the mist of the Canadian Rocky Mountains is a timeless memory not for the faint of heart or the weak in spirit, and the majesty of this mysterious creature remains something truly magical to behold.