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.
From 2011-2013, ten cougars were fitted with GPS-radio collars to track their movements, habitat selection and kill rates. The GPS collar technology took a fix on the cougars’ locations every three hours and emailed the data to the researchers via satellite. Clusters of GPS points were then ground searched to determine habitat use, kill site locations and prey selection. Over 700 clusters were searched and over 200 kills were located. White-tailed deer are the cougars’ primary prey however an assortment of animals, from elk to porcupines, also made up the menu.
To further investigate how the area’s cougars and human users coexist, a network of remote cameras were deployed throughout the Interprovincial Park. These cameras recorded the passings of people, cougars and prey and helped 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 helped to determine areas of potential human-cougar conflict and will assist wildlife managers in their efforts to maintain a healthy coexistence.
By co-examining space-use and movement of sub-adult cougars in an isolated population, the results from this study provided insight into how cougar range expansion is progressing in the North American Midwest. These results provided managers with the insight that cougars do not restrict their movement to certain habitat characteristics. If habitat is disturbed, cougars will adopt faster, nocturnal movements to effectively limit residency and exposure in less-suitable landscapes. Due to this, cougars are able to disperse hundreds of kilometers across prairie-dominated landscapes in search of food and reproductive opportunities.
In 2011, CPAWS Saskatchewan supported a project by The University of Alberta that conducted research to document the ecology of the 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, completed his graduate studies under the direction of Dr. Mark Boyce and Dr. Scott Nielsen from the UofA.
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