Cougar hounds in demand as big cats sighted
The success of tracking a cougar relies heavily on one factor: a skilled cougar hound.
Sooke resident, George Pednault, 70, has been tracking cougars since he was 13 years old.
Successfully tracking and treeing approximately 300 cougars over several years, Pednault said a good cougar hound is key.
He said any dog that will bark and follow a scent will make an adequate cougar hound, but listed walker hounds, blood hounds, bluetick, red bone, and black and tan coonhounds as the most common breeds.
Dogs used to track the large predatory cats are trained, but he said it’s mainly instinct.
“It’s bred in them a bit... to chase cats,” Pednault said.
As puppies, the dogs are trained to follow the scent of racoons in order to teach them to trail.
“Then you put them on a cougar track and away they go,” he said. “If you know your animals you certainly can help them, but a good dog doesn’t need too much help.”
A trained dog will let out long, drawn out barks called a “ball” while it tracks a cougar trail through the bush, allowing the cougar hunter to follow. The barks will become shorter and more rapid as the dog approaches and trees a cougar.
According to Pednault, it doesn’t take long for a cougar to scamper up a tree.
“A cougar can only go about 1,000 feet flat out and he’s absolutely winded. He’s only good for that little short burst and he trees,” he said, adding a startled or full-bellied cougar will tree even faster.
There are various environmental factors that may affect the success of tracking a cougar, including torrential rain, high temperatures, and how soon after the sighting the cougar is tracked.
But a steady dog can usually get the job done.
“If your dog is good, anytime is prime time,” Pednault said. “The successful rate is pretty good.”
“A good dog will track underneath those leaves and even if it’s been snowed on, they’ll follow the track under the snow. I’ve seen them bury their heads and up over their shoulders in snow.”
According to conservation officer, Rick Dekelver, cougar hounds are usually contracted if a situation deems it necessary -- a threat to public safety being the main concern.
“Basically each CO has contacts for contractors for each district or zone.”
He said in the past there have been conservation officers in the province who have raised and trained their own cougar hounds, but there are currently none on Vancouver Island.
Since April, the conservation service have received about 104 calls regarding cougar encounters and sightings in areas ranging from Mill Bay to Port Renfrew.
Dekelver stated 40 to 50 per cent of the calls were in the Sooke and East Sooke region.
Three of those calls were engaged, resulting in the termination of two cougars that were seen behaving abnormally in East Sooke earlier this month.
The two cougars were seen resting on a property, exhibiting distemper symptoms like difficulty walking. A resident worried for her cat that was laying on the porch a short six-feet from the cougars, broke a broom stick against the wall to frighten the cougars, but they did not respond.
Dekelver said the cougars were put down due to their poor health and lack of fear of humans.
In recent months, two reports of cougar attacks on dogs have been reported to the media.
On June 12, a dog was attacked and killed in East Sooke. The resident let her dogs out of her home, and shortly afterwards heard one of her dogs scream. She saw a cougar rush off into the bush, while her dog laid in the grass bleeding. The dog succumbed to it’s injuries the following morning while in veterinary care. On February 5, a small dog was attacked and killed by a cougar while walking off leash in East Sooke Regional Park.
“The messaging we’re getting out is: keep your animals on a leash,” Dekelver said. “It’s nice to let the dog off the leash and run but it increases the threat of conflict.”
He added small and medium-sized domestic pets are prey for cougars, as they resemble other food sources like racoons and small game.
There are approximately 800 to 1,000 cougars evenly distributed throughout Vancouver Island.