Cypress Hills is home to the highest density of cougars in North America at about 6 cougars / 100 square kilometres.
The Cypress Hills, located in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan, are an island-like ecosystem of foothills surrounded by a sea of grasslands, ranchlands and agricultural development. The hills also form the basis for Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a popular tourist destination that receives up to half a million visitors annually. Interestingly, cougars have recently re-colonized this portion of their former range and a strong breeding population now exists. The high density of cougars and humans using the same confined space raises some interesting questions about how to manage this unique landscape. Undoubtedly, public education and thoughtful management strategies will play a critical role in a peaceful coexistence, however little scientific information exists about these elusive cats.
Over the past two years, ten cougars have been fitted with GPS-radio collars to track their movements, habitat selection and kill rates. The GPS collar technology takes a fix on the cougars’ locations every three hours and emails the data to the researchers via satellite. Clusters of GPS points are then ground searched to determine habitat use, kill site locations and prey selection. To date over 700 clusters have been searched and over 200 kills have been located. White-tailed deer are the cougars’ primary prey however an assortment of animals, from elk to porcupines, also make up the menu. Perhaps most pertinent for the area’s landowners is that not a single case of livestock depredation by a study cat has yet been recorded.
To further investigate how the area’s cougars and human users coexist, a network of remote cameras has been deployed throughout the Interprovincial Park. These cameras record the passings of people, cougars and prey and will help determine seasonal fluctuations of their respective numbers and their use of the trail system in the park. Coupled with GPS data from the collars, the camera data may help determine areas of potential human-cougar conflict and will assist wildlife managers in their efforts to maintain a healthy coexistence.
The University of Alberta, with support from CPAWS Saskatchewan, is currently conducting research to document the ecology of this recently established cougar population, including how cougars respond to the seasonal flux of human use in and around Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. As part of this research, Carl Morrison, will be completing his graduate studies under the direction of Dr. Mark Boyce and Dr. Scott Nielsen from the UofA.
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