KANANASKIS – A cougar followed a hiker to within 20 metres in Kananaskis Country on the weekend in the exact same location a Calgary couple had a hair-raising hike when a wild cat trailed them in January.
Alberta Parks has an official warning in place for the High Rockies Trail near the Blackshale suspension bridge in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park until further notice following the encounter on Saturday morning (March 18).
John Paczkowski, human-wildlife coexistence team leader for Alberta Parks, said the hiker was on the trail near the suspension bridge when he spotted the cougar already crossing the bridge coming towards him around 10:30 a.m.
“The cougar was crossing the bridge westbound and the gentleman started to leave the area and said the cougar followed him a distance to within 20 metres,” he said.
“It followed him down the trail for a while until the fellow saw the road, and at that point, he decided to just beeline straight through the snow and lost track of the cougar and that was the end of it.”
According to Paczkowski, the hiker did not indicate that the cougar showed any signs of aggression.
“In the record I read, there was no indication of hissing or vocalization, just kind of walking in the same general direction,” he said.
“But certainly, it’s an unsettling experience. The person was described as quite rattled by the experience, and I get it too. Any wild animal approaching you at a close distance can be unsettling.”
This encounter occurred at the same location where a Calgary couple had a hair-raising hike along the High Rockies Trail as a cougar followed them for several minutes to within 10 metres on Jan. 15.
Paczkowski said he didn’t want to speculate on whether or not this could be the same cougar.
“After 35 years of doing wildlife work, what appears to be an obvious set of circumstances, I’m hesitant to say yes because I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right,” he said.
Paczkowski said that area is not ideal habitat for cougars.
“It’s not the greatest cougar habitat out there, and we’ve got over a metre of snow, and ungulate density is fairly low in the wintertime in that area,” he said.
“Cougars are probably travelling a lot, trying to find a pocket of a few deer tucked away here or there.”
A remote camera captured a grainy photo of the cougar on the far side of the bridge.
“It does not look like a big animal,” said Paczkowski.
In Canmore, there was a recent report of a cougar spotted on the other side of the dog-proof fence at the Bow Valley SPCA on Bow Meadows Crescent.
In addition, Canmore resident Scott Ward came across cougar scat right outside his house in the busy Cougar Creek Drive-Settler Way neighbourhood when he was heading out early on the morning of March 13.
Ward, who is a retired Parks Canada warden from Banff National Park and a member of the band The Wardens, said no one in the neighbourhood saw the cougar to his knowledge.
“Of course, they’re travelling at night when nobody is around,” he said. “It looked like it (scat) was full of deer hair to me."
Aaron Szott, an Alberta Fish and Wildlife officer, said there have not been many reports of cougars of late, but noted one was spotted during daylight hours near the Canmore Recreation Centre and Canmore Golf and Curling Club about 10 days ago.
“The person and the cougar both saw each other and the cougar ran back towards the green space,” he said.
“There was no carcass or anything. The cougar was just travelling through the area.”
Most of the other cougar sightings in and around town have been at night when cougars are typically more active, Szott said.
“The cougars are in town or on the fringes of the townsite preying on ungulates. We have a large population of deer and elk on the perimeter,” he said.
“It’s a good reminder that you could expect to bump into a cougar, wolf or bear while recreating on any of the trail systems, either within or outside the town boundary.”
Heather Kaszuba, assistant communications director for Alberta Forestry, Parks and Tourism, said the warning for the High Rockies Trail has been issued to ensure Albertans seeking to explore the area are aware that a cougar may be in the area.
“Cougars can be encountered anywhere in the Kananaskis area at any time,” she said in an email.
To avoid a surprise encounter, residents and visitors are reminded to make plenty of noise, travel in groups, keep pets on a leash and be aware of their surroundings at all times.
“If you encounter a cougar, give it space. Do not run or turn your back on the cougar. Make yourself appear as large as possible and back away slowly,” said Kaszuba.
“If the cougar attacks, fight back using any means possible.”
Alberta Parks asked that all cougar sightings in Kananaskis Country be reported immediately to 403-591-7755.