Hiking In Cougar Country

If you encounter a cougar, face it, look into its eyes, and
make yourself look big. Illustration: Backwoods Home

The forests of Vancouver Island are home to Puma concolor, more commonly known as puma, mountain lion, or cougar, as they are called here. This amazing relative of domestic cats has the greatest range of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. The island has one of the highest concentrations of cougars in the world.

If you are planning a trip to visit the big trees of the island, an encounter with a cougar is possible. Hiking in wilderness areas increases the likelihood of having an encounter. You can help yourself (and the cougars) by learning a bit about these elusive creatures before you go into their forest home.

While doing research on these stalk and ambush predators I found some potential ways to protect myself while out hiking. One of my favourites was a recommendation to wear a hat or hoodie with large eyes painted on the back. Another was to frequently look up, around, and behind you as you hike to show a cougar that you are being alert. Ambushes happen when the prey is not paying attention.

The BC government website has some good, comprehensive information in their Safety Guide To Cougars. I have included some of their tips below.

When in Cougar Country:

We have little understanding about what might trigger an attack, but following these general guidelines will reduce the risk of cougar conflict and prepare you in the unlikely event of an attack.

 Hiking or working in cougar country:
  • Hike in groups of two or more. Make enough noise to prevent surprising a cougar.
  • Carry a sturdy walking stick to be used as a weapon if necessary.
  • Keep children close-at-hand and under control.
  • Watch for cougar tracks and signs. Cougars cover unconsumed portions of their kills with soil and leaf litter. Avoid these food caches.
  • Cougar kittens are usually well-hidden. However, if you do stumble upon cougar kittens, do not approach or attempt to pick them up. Leave the area immediately, as a female will defend her young.
If you meet a cougar:
  • Never approach a cougar. Although cougars will normally avoid a confrontation, all cougars are unpredictable. Cougars feeding on a kill may be dangerous.
  • Always give a cougar an avenue of escape. A cougar that feels trapped is unpredictable.
  • Stay calm. Talk to the cougar in a confident voice.
  • Pick all children up off the ground immediately. Children frighten easily and their rapid movements may provoke an attack.
  • Do not run. Try to back away from the cougar slowly. Sudden movement or flight may trigger an instinctive attack.
  • Do not turn your back on the cougar. Face the cougar and remain upright.
  • Do all you can to enlarge your image. Don't crouch down or try to hide. Pick up sticks or branches and wave them about. Hold your back pack above your head.
If a cougar behaves aggressively:
  • Arm yourself with a large stick, throw rocks, speak loudly and firmly, or growl. Convince the cougar that you are a threat not prey.
  • If a cougar attacks, fight back! Many people have survived cougar attacks by fighting back with anything, including rocks, sticks, bare fists, and fishing poles.
Cougars are a vital part of our diverse wildlife. Seeing a cougar should be an exciting and rewarding experience, with both you and the cougar coming away unharmed. However, if you do experience a confrontation with a cougar or feel threatened by one, immediately inform the nearest office of the Conservation Officer service.

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