Is Ontario’s cougar population increasing?

A portrait of a cougar in autumn By Evgeniyqw/Shutterstock

Cougars are starting to travel through northwestern Ontario more often, experts say, but it’s still too early to confirm whether they’re settling in the province.

The Eastern or North American cougar (Puma concolor couguar) was classified as an endangered species in 1978 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, according to Nature Canada. Cougars are considered extremely rare in the country, with wildlife experts debating their presence in Ontario, and park officials often dismissing reported sightings.

In the last half a decade, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has found credible evidence for a handful of sightings in northern Ontario, says MNRF large animal research scientist Brent Patterson. A group of Ontarians found a cougar carcass on the side of a Thunder Bay road in 2017. In December 2020 and January 2021, Pukaskwa National Park trail cameras captured photos of a cougar, and in June 2023, the MNRF confirmed a cougar sighting in Cannington, Ont.

Patterson says most cougars in Ontario come from Black Hills in South Dakota, southern Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, where populations have been increasing for the last few years. He’s seen no evidence, however, that cougars have been reproducing in Ontario.

“Evidence (of reproduction) could take a few forms, but a smoking gun would be very clear tracks left by a mother and kids travelling together,” he says. “If we do have breeding here, it’s occurring at such a low level that we haven’t been able to detect it.”

Patterson says there isn’t enough prey in northern Ontario for cougars to start breeding. He says the cougar spotted in Pukaskwa National Park was likely passing through the area because the park has low deer and moose populations.

He adds that many southern Ontario environments are also unsuitable for cougars due to human proximity. “We have adequate prey down here, but also a very high hazard with such high human and road densities. It’s not clear to me that southern Ontario could ever support a resident population,” he says.

Daniel Pouliot, the resource conservation manager for Pukaskwa National Park, says the average male cougar inhabits a home 500 sq. km in size.

“It’s a very large home, and they can travel very long distances,” he says, adding that female cougars have smaller home ranges at around 200 sq. km.

Despite southern Ontario’s unsuitable environments, it’s the source of 70 per cent of sightings from 1996 to 2010, according to a 2011 MNRF study. Patterson says most of these sightings have evidence that’s ambiguous at best since people tend to confuse cougars for house cats or red foxes. But it shows an increased awareness of cougars’ presence in the province, he says.

Pouliot says credible sightings are likely more common now because more trail cameras are being installed in wildlife settings. Pukaskwa National Park, for example, installed 18 cameras in 2010, then added 6 in 2021 for a total of 24.

He adds that people are also more knowledgeable on what details make cougars distinct from other animals.

“When you used to hear about cougar sightings, people would mostly talk about the colour and size. The long tail is something I was not hearing as often, but now they always talk about it,” he says.

Patterson says given the increasing populations in neighbouring provinces, it’s possible cougars could start breeding in northern Ontario in 10 to 15 years. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ we get a resident population,” he says. “It’s more ‘when.’”

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