CANMORE – A Calgary couple had a hair-raising hike along the High Rockies Trail in Kananaskis Country as a cougar followed them for several minutes to within 10 metres, forcing Alberta Parks to issue a warning for the area.
The two hikers had moments earlier spotted two lynx – believed to be a mother and offspring – when they saw a cougar crouching beneath a tree along the High Rockies Trail near Blackshale Creek Suspension Bridge in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on Sunday afternoon (Jan. 15).
“They heard a sound and I’ll describe it as a yowling, and they looked up and saw a pair of lynx,” said John Paczkowski, human-wildlife coexistence team leader for Alberta Parks.
“They stopped and thought ‘isn’t this cool’, and then her husband said ‘no, look over there’ and her husband then saw a cougar crouching under a tree, quite close, and in close proximity to the lynx.”
The couple quickly backed away to head back down the trail, pulling out their bear spray in the event they needed to defend themselves against the cougar.
“As they proceeded to start leaving the area, the cougar that was under the tree hissed at them and then it followed them for a couple of minutes. It got as close as 30 feet,” said Paczkowski.
“They were able to get back down to the road and got a ride back to their car and everyone was fine.”
The cougar warning, which went into effect on Monday (Jan. 16), will remain in place until further notice.
The warning includes the portion of the High Rockies Trail from Kent Creek to the Black Prince Junction.
It is indeed rare to see a cougar or a lynx, let alone at the same time, but Paczkowski said it’s hard to confirm if the cougar was hunting the lynx.
“I am sure a hungry cougar would kill and eat what it could, but I can’t confirm in this case that the cougar was hunting the lynx or there was any interaction there,” he said.
Cougars are active in Canmore year-round, but the winter months from December through March see some of the highest cougar activity because of the concentration of elk and deer seeking safe haven closer to town.
With the expansion of residential communities in the valley and the reduction of wildlife habitat over the last 20 years, some of the best habitat for some prey species such as deer and elk now exists in and adjacent to developed areas.
Paczkowski said early winter is one of the hardest times for cougars to hunt because ungulates, which are their main food source, are in their prime.
“Gradually over the winter the condition of the ungulates will deplete and they will become easier prey, but they’re still fairly robust so it’s harder for cougars to hunt them,” he said.
Anecdotally, Paczkowski said it does seem like there are more cougar sightings or conflicts in the early winter period.
“Quite often it is the younger cougars that are getting into trouble with people and conflicts,” he said, noting the recent cougar sightings around Canmore that prompted a cougar warning on Jan. 8.
“I went up, and just gauging from the tracks, I could tell it was a smaller cougar so probably recently disengaged from its mother, is hungry and hanging around town where we have a lot of ungulates.”
The cougar warning for the Town of Canmore and Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park remains in place, and includes Cougar Creek, Horseshoe Loop Trails, Montane Traverse Trail and surrounding areas.
Bow Valley Riding Association first reported a cougar kill on Indian Flats lands on Dec. 31. A cougar feeding on a carcass in the Horseshoe area was also reported by residents on Jan. 6.
Among other sightings, there was a cougar spotted on Jan. 9 in the forest between the backyards of 200 Elk Run Boulevard.
“It is exceptionally rare to have multiple cougar sightings in a short period of time, so it’s a bit of an anomaly,” said Paczkowski.
“I don’t think we’ve had any reports in at least the last week.”
This time last year, there was a spike in cougar sightings in Canmore as the wild cats come closer to town in search of deer or elk seeking safe haven from predators.
To avoid a surprise cougar encounter, Alberta Parks recommends making plenty of noise, travelling in groups, being aware of surroundings, carrying bear spray, and keeping dogs on leash at all times.
“If you do experience that rare instance of bumping into a cougar, the best thing to do is stand your ground,” said Paczkowski.
“If the cougar is moving towards you, you should behave aggressively, prepare your bear spray, group together and make yourself appear to be a badass thing to want to eat.”
Please report all cougar sightings immediately to 403-591-7755.