The small feline predator sat motionless on the back of our couch, staring intently at the window-mounted bird feeder. When a bird arrived, she would freeze, crouch, flex her damp paws, and make a little whining meow. Her pupils would dilate, she would pant through her mouth, her pulse would quicken, her hair would fluff up slightly and her tail tip would twitch. She was the consummate predator and despite being thousands of generations and one pane of glass removed from hunting, her instincts were intact just below the surface. I loved the elemental nature of her instinct. I could relate to it.
Now, imagine you and a friend out golfing or hiking and because you are paying attention, you see something; a large wild animal, maybe a deer, elk or moose. Here is what will happen. In rapid succession you will freeze, then crouch slightly, position your feet, whisper to your friend “There’s a deer/elk/moose!” Simultaneously, your pupils will dilate, your breathing will become rapid, your pulse will quicken, your palms will get sweaty or damp, your pathetic body hair will rise in an “involuntary pilo-erectile response” (AKA goosebumps), and if you have a tail, it will twitch. Guaranteed. Involuntarily. You have become an upright house cat.
You experience an instinctive, predatory fight or flee response identical to the bird-watching cat, straight from your brain’s amygdala (pronounced a-mig-da-la). The amygdala are two almond-sized brain parts attached to the primitive central brain stem and residing about 8 cm behind the outer corners of your eyes. The amygdala are responsible for assessing, interpreting and responding to situations of intense emotions such as fear, anger or predatory drive. They can activate a large release of adrenaline to help you run from a cougar (bad idea), jump to avoid a snake (good idea) or quickly pursue a plump bunny (tasty idea). If you have ever gotten a shaky voice during public speaking, felt your hands tremble at the free-throw line, or felt your pulse race while watching a horror movie, then thank your amygdala for the adrenaline dump. Some activities like thinking clearly in a public debate, operating a race car or talking your way out of a bar fight, require cool, calm nerves and amygdala control.
Yet, what is it about sharks, bears and anacondas that makes us come unglued even if we are just watching them on TV? There are several contributing factors including a deep instinctual recognition that such creatures can hypothetically pose a threat. Any early ancestors who survived to begat our lineages were clearly not lackadaisical about large predators. Secondly, our culture builds social mystique around things deemed important; things like public speaking, bravery in war times, and calmness during test-taking all become things about which we care deeply. We ascribe iconic symbolism and preternatural importance to people and things and subliminally reference them back to predators. Witness the prowess of the actors called Wolverine, Grizzly Adams or Spiderman; we admire the awesome power of a Jaguar F1 race car; groan at the implied predatory “wolf-whistle” or live the gut-wrenching descent of a bear stock market. Humans fear, ogle, admire, detest, dream about, and even worship predatory things.
But what about actual predator examples in nature? An encounter with a large predator in the wild is an uncommon and meaningful event because predators are scarce; they always have been scarce and they always will be. If predators became abundant, starvation, disease, inter-specific fighting, infanticide, and stress would quickly whittle numbers down to lower numbers. This feedback loop regulates predator distribution to densities well below that of their predominant prey species. Consider wolves and caribou; lions and zebras; pike and perch; lynx and hares; falcons and ducks; see a pattern? It is like the pyramid of biomass you might remember from high school biology where 100 units of plant supported 10 units of prey which supported one unit of predator, and maybe 0.1 unit of apex predator.
The natural scarcity of predators means that we rarely encounter them and when we do, it is a special and possibly boot-shaking event. Economic theory equates scarcity with high value, be it diamonds or the chance to photograph a Churchill polar bear (about $7500 for six days, flight included). In Alberta, where I live, wolverines, grizzly bears and cougars exist but are elusive and rarely seen even though numbers of each species seem to be increasing. Wolverines studies here are uncovering the highest wolverine density ever recorded. Grizzly and Cougar ranges appear to be expanding from the mountains out into the prairies too.
Yes, large predators are rare relative to other organisms in the ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean they are rare by predator standards. In fact, at densities of one wolf per 250 sq km, the wolves are probably feeling crowded and prone to additional territorial howling, scent marking and patrolling of their territorial boundaries. Grizzly bears too leave messages about their sex, size, and visitation frequency by rubbing their hides on specific trees at important trail intersections where other bears are likely to encounter this “message board”. The message’s subtleties remain unclear, however, it is clear the habitat is occupied.
Population estimates of thinly dispersed predators are usually approximations and biologists must use substantial professional judgement informed by track densities, hunter surveys, mark-recapture studies, trapping records, inter-annual comparisons and sometimes, genetic sampling from hair or scat samples.
Annual cougar abundance and harvest rates receive diligent annual reviews in Alberta and diverse evidence suggests cougar numbers are increasing. Here are seven indicators from government biologists, trappers, and academic researchers that point that direction:
1. Alberta has maintained a managed cougar hunt for the last 48 years. In recent decades, there has been a prudent 130-cougar limit across the province and when reached, hunting is stopped. The time needed to fill that quota has gotten shorter and shorter in the last decade.
2. Historically, one or two cougars would be taken from low-density areas outside the common cougar-management areas in Alberta. In 2017, there were 15 killed in such peripheral areas and many more sightings called in from new areas indicating a range expansion northerly and eastward in Alberta.
3. Some cougar management areas take their entire number of cats allotted in the first three days of the season now and remaining tracks suggest an abundance or cougars remain.
4. Depredation complaints and animal damage control requests to houndsmen continue to increase. This could also be an interaction with more people and more livestock as humans increase however.
5. The non-hunting mortality (road kills, incidental trapping, found dead wildlife, and depredation kills) has gone up from 64 cats in 2007 to 140 in 2017.
6. The ongoing study of 40-collared cougars by Alberta Environment and Parks shows they are faring well even at high densities approaching one cougar per 25 square km.
7. One human fatality and several serious cougar attacks on Albertans have occurred in the last 15 years; attacks were quite unusual in the pre-1990 period.
Mild winters and the upsurge in deer and elk populations undoubtedly draws cougar numbers higher but the increased abundance of domestic livestock, open disposal of cattle carcasses and rural pets and small stock on hobby farms supplement food supplies too.
The numbers of all large predators in this corner of Canada appear robust and increasing alongside record high numbers of big game hunters afield. Rough estimates by Provincial biologists include 40,000 black bears, 7,000 wolves, 2,500–3,500 mountain lions and grizzly bear numbers growing back past the 1000 mark. This is a great place for encountering large predators. On your next encounter though, be sure to dilate your pupils and twitch your tail, OK?