Travelling in cougar country

Alberta’s wilderness offers many opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, but that same wilderness includes the range of cougars and other large carnivores. If your next outdoor adventure takes you into cougar country, you should learn how to avoid human-cougar encounters whenever possible, and how to respond if you do encounter a cougar.

Cougar (Felis concolor) facts

Size and appearance

  • The cougar (also known as the mountain lion) is the largest of North America's wild cats. From nose to tip of tail, a large cougar may be as long as three metres (10 feet).
  • Average weight of adult males ranges from 60 to 70 kilograms (130 to 160 pounds).
  • Average weight of adult females ranges from 40 to 50 kilograms (90 to 110 pounds).
  • Adults grade in colour from yellow through reddish brown to grey, with a light belly, chin and throat.
  • Other distinguishing traits include short black ears and a long rounded tail tipped with black.
  • Kittens are yellowish, spotted with brown.

Where found

  • Cougars can usually be found in wooded, rocky areas and may den in dense underbrush, under an overhang of tree branches, under logs or in rock caves.
  • When threatened, cougars seek refuge in trees, and stay in the limbs of the trees until the danger has passed.
  • Cougars do not normally prefer flat, open terrain. However, they may be spotted in the river valleys and other wildlife travel corridors that pass through such terrain.
  • Cougars are curious and adaptable and can survive in territory that provides shelter and a food source such as deer.
  • It is thought that cougars have expanded their range in recent years. However, cougars are simply returning to territory that they had previously used, but were removed from.

Notable behaviours

  • Cougars are efficient hunters who silently stalk and ambush their prey from the ground.
  • Cougars normally prey on deer, elk, moose, sheep and small mammals.
  • Cougars normally vocalize only when mating, communicating with kittens or when feeling threatened.

Reducing conflicts with cougars

Before you go

  • Find family or friends to go with. Cougars are less likely to approach groups of people.
  • Ensure your bear spray has not yet expired and air horn or other noise deterrents are working. Make sure you know how to use them.
  • Contact a Fish and Wildlife office. Find out if cougar or other wildlife activity has been reported in the area you are about to visit.
  • Leave your dog at home. If you must bring your dog, ensure it is kept close and on a leash at all times.
  • Talk to those in your group. Make an informed plan for how the group will respond if you see a cougar.
  • Charge your cell phone batteries and pack your cell phone.
  • Prepare children for staying safe in cougar territory. Teach them to:
    • Stay between the adults of the group and not run ahead or fall behind.
    • Never run away from cougars or show fear by screaming.
    • Always fight back and never give up if a cougar makes contact.

When in cougar country

  • Keep your bear spray and noise deterrent on your belt or in a chest holster so you can access it quickly
  • Do not wear your mp3 player or anything else that might interfere with your ability to see clearly or hear the sounds that can alert you to the presence of wildlife.
  • Carry a walking stick, which can be used as a potential weapon against a cougar
  • Make a lot of noise to avoid surprise encounters with cougars, or other wildlife
  • Don't let anyone in the group wander off alone, especially children
  • Always keep your dog close and on leash
  • Be extra wary along tree lines, rock outcroppings or under ledges
  • Be alert. Always watch for wildlife behind and ahead of you
  • Watch for signs that a cougar has recently been in the area:
    • Tracks, scrapes and fresh kills. Cougars will bury their kills, and the buried kill may be difficult to spot. If you see part of an animal beneath a pile of leaves and grasses, assume you have located a cougar kill and leave the area.
    • Flocks of ravens or magpies may indicate a kill site where either cougars or bears could be found feeding.

If you encounter a cougar

Cougars and humans

  • Cougars are elusive and prefer to avoid contact with humans, so attacks on humans are very rare.
  • The few cougar incidents with humans that have occurred typically involved children playing outside alone or adults who are jogging, skiing or hiking alone.
  • Cougars may confuse children for prey species because, like many small prey species, children are small, make quick, erratic movements and have high-pitched voices.
  • Most cougar incidents in Alberta involve pets. Cougars see domestic cats and dogs as easy prey. When bringing your dog along on a hike, camping or fishing trip, keep in mind that it may attract a cougar.
  • If hungry and malnourished, cougars will feed on such things as carrion or dog/cat food left in backyards, increasing the risk of human-cougar incidents.

Cougars encounters

If you see a cougar at a distance

Cougars grooming or periodically looking away from you may simply be resting. In this case, avoid provoking the cougar:

  • Bring everyone in close and back away.
  • Do not run and do not turn your back.
  • Prepare to use your bear spray.

If the cougar is closer

Cougars close and showing such behaviours as hissing, snarling, staring intensely and tracking your movements present a threat. You must show the cougar you are not a prey animal and you are able to fight back:

  • Do not run. Do not turn your back.
  • Make sure children and dogs stay calm. Keep them very close.
  • Make yourself look big. Wave your arms, open your jacket and do not crouch down or bend over.
  • Use your noise deterrent and bear spray.

If the cougar makes contact

  • Continue using your bear spray.
  • Fight back with everything you can. Rocks, sticks or your fists should be aimed at the cougar's eyes and face.
  • If you're knocked down, get back up. Do not stop fighting.
  • Never play dead with a cougar.