Wildlife conservation officers have re-evaluated the potential risk posed by a cougar active on Salt Spring and will take steps to remove the animal if it kills again.
“We’re at the point now where we’ll be taking intervention,” said Mark Kissinger, a conservation officer for the South Island zone, on Friday.
While the wildlife officers considered previous reports of livestock kills on the island to be unverified, the cougar struck a Ford Lake-area farm Wednesday night and left no further doubt. Mark Hughes lost a lamb and one of his calves was severely injured. He’s not sure how it escaped, but thinks the cows probably surrounded it.
The calf is now on antibiotics but its head is twisted at an angle. Kissinger doesn’t think it will ever be the same. What’s worse, he had already lost a ram at the beginning of February.
Photographs that Hughes took of the cougar’s tracks in the snow suggest it is bounding at six feet intervals. The animal has to clear a seven-foot tall fence to get in.
Kissinger visited Hughes’ farm with tracking dogs on Thursday and confirmed a cougar was responsible for the most recent attack. Judging from the tracks, he believes it’s likely a young female.
“As a juvenile it’s not fully up to its hunting skills on deer, so it may be more willing to look at lambs and more,” Kissinger said.
“Generally we don’t want to come if it’s killed only one animal, but if it’s continuing doing it and has switched from deer to livestock, we don’t have a choice.”
Despite being spotted all over the island, the cougar — or possibly cougars — has proved elusive when necessary. It has yet to return to the kill site at Hughes’ farm, where a game camera was set up. Another camera that Ken Byron put up at his north end farm after a sheep was killed there two weeks ago has also failed to catch any footage.
“It could be in the north end, it could be anywhere. It’s like a ghost,” Hughes said.
Joanne Perkins, who also lives in the Ford Lake area, said a friend spotted the cougar in her backyard in December. The household lost five chickens that month, but she doesn’t feel that it’s necessarily connected. Anecdotal reports have another sheep killed near Beaver Point Road.
Byron said during his entire life spent living and farming on the island, he’s never actually witnessed a cougar kill before. However, the signs were unmistakable: his sheep had puncture wounds in its neck and had been fed on at the shoulder.
“It’s odd it’s killing livestock because there’s so many deer,” Byron said. “And I thought it was odd it would eat so much of the animal.”
Byron believes there may actually be two cougars. He saw tracks at a property off Stewart Road suggesting a smaller animal walking with a larger one. A local couple also reported seeing a pair of cougars near Atkins Road.
Kissinger said conservation officers will be back if or when the cougar kills another farm animal. Until then, they are asking islanders to take their livestock in at night if possible, and to report any sightings or signs of a kill to the RAPP line at 1-877-952-7277 or #7277 on the TELUS Mobility network. The line is staffed 24 hours a day. People who feel threatened or in fear of their life can also call 911.
If the conservation officers can locate the cougar they will put it down. Relocation attempts have not proved successful, because the animal is often forced into a fight in another cougar’s territory, Kissinger said.
Hughes will appreciate an end to the situation. He’s been staying up at night on patrol, which is impacting his other work as an excavator operator.
Although he understands that erroneous sighting reports are probably often made, Hughes feels conservation officers should have acted after his first livestock kill in early February instead of waiting for another one.
“It would have been nice if they’d taken an active role,” he said.
“I wish the cougars and the farms could co-exist — I’d like to see the deer population reduced.
“It’s like having a serial killer in your back yard.”