From caribou to flying squirrels, Pukaswka National Park research conservation manager Daniel Pouliot has seen plenty of interesting animals captured by the northwestern Ontario park’s trail cameras.
But nothing like a cougar.
The cameras show the big cat in two locations in the park, which along Lake Superior’s North Shore, south of Marathon — in December 2020 and then in January 2021.
In a recent interview with CBC News, Pouliot called the images provided by Parks Canada “incredible.”
“I’m really skeptical,” he said. “I’ve been aware of the cougar story over the years.
“We have visitors at the park sometimes, or actually in the region, coming and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve seen tracks,’ and I listened to their story,” Pouliot said. “But I was looking for hard evidence. And now it was undeniable that it’s a cougar.
“And I was very excited, very happy to finally be able to to see and confirm an actual observation.”
The first set of cougar images were released on the park’s social media channels earlier this week. Pouliot said it took some time to find and release the images due to the sheer number of them captured by the trail cameras.
“The technician looks at every picture, and defines what it is,” he said. “Is it a bear? Is it the moose? And at the end, there’s a report.
“What was a surprise this time was to scan through all those thousands of pictures and see 20 of them of a cougar.”
The images mark the only evidence of a cougar at Pukaskwa since it opened in 1983.
The first photos released by the park were captured in an area called Swallow Cove, which is along the shoreline, about four kilometres beyond the end of the park’s coastal hiking trail.
The other photos, which Pouliot said will be released soon, were captured about 30 kilometres further north. They show the cougar travelling in the opposite direction.
Cougar sightings ‘extremely rare’
The cougar, also known as mountain lion and puma, has taken on an almost mythical status in the region over the years.
There are plenty of stories of sightings of the big cat, which can reach up to two metres in length and weigh more than 60 kilograms. But actual proof is a different story.
“Cougar sightings are extremely rare,” a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the 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 come from western North America or could be escaped or released pets. Ministry staff may conduct a site investigation to confirm reports.”
Pouliot said park staff will work to to determine whether the cougar spotted at Pakaskwa was passing through or if it’s now residing in the 1,900-square-kilometre park.
“What we know so far is that there will not be an established population, a breeding population in northwestern Ontario, and it seems it could be [an] individual travelling through the landscape,” he said. “Cougars have huge territory, especially the male.
“The territory can cover almost 500 square kilometres,” 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 has decided to stay in the area, it would have an impact on the ecology of the park.
“If the animal was just travelling through the landscape, he might prey on a few moose, or hare or beaver and then keep going, 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 bear, wolves, having potentially some local impact on moose, for example, so that that could be a topic of future research.”
The ministry spokesperson said a few cougar sightings have been investigated in recent years:
How big Ontario’s cougar population may be remains unknown, but the species is categorized as endangered in the province.
“In Ontario, cougars are most likely believed to live in northern Ontario because of the remoteness of the habitat,” the statement reads. “There have however been several reports of sightings from the southern part of the province.”
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