18 December 2016

The eastern cougar: Legend, science and controversy

By ZACK METCALFE, The Chronicle Herald – The Novascotian

Of all the folklore composing the cultures of Atlantic Canada, no tale is more compelling to me than that of the eastern cougar, a supposed subspecies which once roamed the forests of Nova Scotia and beyond.

As the story goes, we eradicated this wildcat some time ago, leaving only their western counterparts on Canada’s far shore, showing off the majesty we now lack.

Legend, science and controversy

A fine story, isn’t it? A seven-foot-long, 200-pound feline stalking through the past of our humble region.

In fact a considerable number of people claim the eastern cougar still walks among us, its survival attested to by the thousands of sightings across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the past century.

But where this local legend meets with the scrutiny of science, a controversy is born.

The science

For the better part of a year I’ve been gathering the facts behind the folklore, speaking first to Mark Elderkin, a species at risk biologist with Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources. He told me our initial belief in an eastern subspecies of cougar came from taxonomy, as the bones and skulls of cougars caught nearby in the New England states were measured against specimens from elsewhere in North America. The New England skulls appeared unique, superficially, and so the eastern cougar was born, but we’ve since learned that taxonomy makes for shaky evidence.

“It’s really not a good way to decide where a species or subspecies begins and ends,” said Mark. He then invoked the work of Dr Melanie Culver from the early 1990s. Using the more precise science of molecular DNA, she compared the separate subspecies suggested by taxonomy and found that several weren’t subspecies at all. The DNA doesn’t lie — from the west coast to the east, it would appear, a cougar is a cougar is a cougar. The fabled eastern subspecies was a myth.

But if the cougars which once occupied the New England states weren’t evolutionarily separate from those of the west coast, did they at least range far enough north to lay claim to the Maritimes as our folklore suggests?

The folklore

According to Mark, cougar sightings in Nova Scotia were documented by the Canadian Wildlife Service until 1992, at which point they handed the job over to the Department of Natural Resources. Mark and his colleagues have continued that labour, accepting sightings from the public and investigating wherever appropriate, and with the benefit of these records of this province’s natural history and his personal experience in the field, Mark has reached as scientific a conclusion as is possible.

“There’s absolutely no historical record of panthers or cougars (having ever lived) in this province,” he said to me, dismantling the folklore I’d come to adore. “As I reviewed these hundreds of sightings one thing became very, very clear — about 95 per cent of them were clear misidentifications or (contained no real evidence of cougars.)”

He chuckled as he recounted a few choice photographs sent to him over the years from well-meaning enthusiasts across the province, some of orange, tabby or bicoloured house cats captured through kitchen windows. Then there were the deliberate hoaxes which come every couple of years — photographs snapped on the west coast claiming to have originated from Yarmouth County.

All told, there are no confirmed cougar photographs from Nova Scotia, no bodies found on the sides of our roadways and no pelts stored in any of our museums. While speaking to Dr. Warren Johnson, an authority on the world’s big cats, it was pointed out to Mark that individual cougars tend to have ranges spanning 90-150 square kilometres or more. Given the narrowness of Nova Scotia, even if the province did at one time host cougars, there wouldn’t have been room for more than three or four.

Inconclusive but compelling

But Mark is a scientist, knowing full well that the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. There’s no reason he can see why cougars, a famously adaptable species, couldn’t conceivably survive in Nova Scotia.

There have been some very compelling sightings, he admits, some from qualified people that he personally knows and trusts, but none of these have yielded any physical evidence, and good science always has its foundations in physical evidence.

“It’s very possible that there are cougars here,” said Mark, “but they are not native cougars that have hidden away in the back hills and come out all of a sudden, a hundred years later. If there are in fact cougars here, someone’s had them in captivity and released them, or they’ve escaped. One or the other.”

After a pause, Mark shared one final possibility, one that has earned credibility in recent years from observations across Ontario and Quebec. We’ve seen a west-to-east movement of certain species, said Mark, cougars among them, meaning the species could reasonably be visiting the Maritimes, if not necessarily establishing themselves here.

“I have nothing to refute the observations of people (who claim to have seen cougars), but it boils down to the physical evidence. We have none.”

A 2007 project in Kejimkujik National Park endeavoured to settle the matter by way of scratch posts, similar in build to those of domestic house cats except larger, covered in tiny hooks and scented specifically to attract cougars. The cougars in question would rub against these posts and leave behind hair samples, collected periodically for DNA analysis. I corresponded with Chris McCarthy of Parks Canada who worked on the project until it was discontinued this year.

“Parks Canada has monitored for a cougar presence within Kejimkujik for nearly 10 years now,” he told me by email. “Throughout this time, monitoring techniques such as scratch posts and game cameras affixed (to them) have produced no conclusive evidence of a cougar presence within the park. As a result, we’ve wrapped up the program.”

New Brunswick

The beginning of New Brunswick’s story is much the same as Nova Scotia’s, outlined for me by Donald McAlpine of the New Brunswick Museum. He’s head of their natural science department and works as their research curator of zoology.

“We actually have no historical evidence that the cougar ever occurred here,” he told me. “Well, very little evidence.”

There are a few scraps of history in his museum pertaining to cougars and, while none are conclusive, they tease the imagination. The first is a cougar skin which was mounted some time ago, belonging to an animal trapped in Quebec very near the border of New Brunswick and Maine in 1938. Then there’s a photograph from 1932 of a hunter in Kent County holding up a cougar pelt, but there’s no way of confirming if the pelt originated here or in New England. And like those of Nova Scotia, Donald estimates 99.9 per cent of sightings in New Brunswick are clear misidentifications.

But the stories of these two provinces diverge drastically in 2001, with a multi-partner scratch post project which preceded that of Kejimkujik. For this puzzle piece I turned to Derek Quann, acting resource conservation manager with Parks Canada. The project included 38 scratch posts mounted across Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, he told me, four of which were dedicated to Fundy National Park between 2003-07. They were scented and designed to gather hair, as before, and moved periodically throughout the park for optimal coverage. Then, the extraordinary happened.

On July 22, 2003, near this park’s Kinnie Brook, a genuine cougar left behind its hair. DNA analysis confirmed its species and later that year, on Nov. 19, a second cougar rubbed against a post on Big Dam Trail. At long last, the presence of cougars in the Maritimes had been confirmed.

Were these two wildcats in fact the fabled eastern cougar, leaving behind its DNA finally for us to validate our folklore? No. But then, did they travel to our distant coast from their strongholds out west to populate this empty park? Almost certainly not. There was too little genetic material to confirm the geographic origin for one of these animals, but there was enough for the other — its home was South America.

“Of course the South American cougar didn’t wander up here (on its own),” said Donald McAlpine. “Yes, there are presently cougars in the region, but these cougars were once captives or are the offspring of captives.” He said someone brought them here.

Donald suggested they might have come as pets, which has been known to happen, but regardless, no hair was collected after 2003 and no additional cougar research has been undertaken in Fundy National Park since 2007. Perhaps its cougars have since moved on or maybe they’ve made a home for themselves out of sight. But cougar sightings continue to cross the desks of both Donald and Mark, like the instance late this October of recorded video showing an enormous cat traversing the long grass of Grand Falls, N.B. from a problematic distance.

It seems clear to me, after a year of scattered interviews, that no cougar of any description has ever truly settled the Maritimes; we might never know for certain. The one thing we can be sure of, however, is that for better or worse, they’re here now.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author and writer of the Endangered Perspective.