For The Calgary Herald
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
A woman from Spruce Grove was forced to fight for her life to fend off an aggressive cougar that had been stalking her as she hiked alone on one of the most popular trails in Kootenay National Park.
The rare encounter, which happened in broad daylight, occurred just a few days after a different cougar began preying on pet cats at nearby Radium Hot Springs, putting residents in that B.C. tourist town on high alert.
The Spruce Grove woman, said to be in her 30s, spotted a cougar about 18 metres away as she hiked on the popular Kindersley-Sinclair Loop in Kootenay on Saturday, quickly recognizing the wild cat's behaviour and posturing as being predatory.
The cougar came to within about two metres of the woman, rearing up at close range. The woman threw rocks, shouted and repeatedly swung her backpack to try to scare the cougar away.
Ironically, the woman had stopped at a visitor information centre at nearby Radium, about 25 kilometres from the park trailhead, earlier that day and read what to do in the event of a cougar attack.
"She did everything right and that probably saved her life. She is very, very lucky and managed to get away completely unharmed," said park warden Grant Peregoodoff, a human-wildlife conflict specialist in Kootenay National Park.
"Cougars are quite different from bears in that a bear might bluff charge someone just to scare them off. But our knowledge of cougars is that if they're attacking you, they are going to try and kill you and eat you."
The incident happened around 2:30 p.m. Saturday when the woman left the main trail to climb a small sub- peak in the area, about halfway through the six-hour loop trail.
Just a few hours later, the cougar began stalking three other hikers that had separated from four others in the same area. The wild cat came to within about six metres of them before turning around and taking cover in some bushes.
Wardens immediately swept the area by helicopter in search of other hikers on the trail. Wardens have been spending time in the area looking for the animal, but there have been no signs of the cougar so far.
The area has been closed to the public until further notice.
Peregoodoff said it is possible this cougar may have been protecting a kill site or hunting in the area, which is a popular spot for Bighorn sheep. There was no sign of a den.
He said the cougar might be sick, especially given aggressive up-close encounters such as these are considered very rare. Cougars are solitary animals, very elusive and are mostly active at night.
"If it had shown up, we probably would have destroyed it right on site, but we didn't see it at all," said Peregoodoff.
Meanwhile, the cougar warning in the Village of Radium Hot Springs has been in place after two domestic cats were reported missing last Thursday.
Residents are being advised to keep pets indoors at night, not to leave pet food outside and to supervise small children at all times when playing outdoors.
"We want people to be aware there is a cougar, but we don't want to start a panic," said Gary Burford, protective services officer for the Village of Radium Hot Springs.
"The bottom line is this is their territory. There are cougars and bears around. It hasn't been a nuisance up until now, but obviously there are now some concerns."
Burford said the cougar might end up being tracked and relocated if it becomes too much of a problem.
"If we keep losing pets, we'll have to take a closer look at what our next steps will be," he said.
In January 2001, a cougar stalked and killed Canmore woman Frances Frost as she cross-country skied alone in broad daylight near Lake Minnewanka, about 12 kilometres from Banff.
Parks Canada encourages anyone heading into the mountain national parks to stop by a visitor centre or read a mountain guide to know what to do in the event of an encounter with wild animals, including cougars and bears.
Wardens Provide the Following Tips for Cougar Encounters:
- Never approach a cougar; allow the animal a means of escape.
- Pick up small children and pets.
- Don't run. You may trigger a chase.
- Make yourself big, wave arms, sticks and objects over your head.
- Shout, throw rocks and sticks, use pepper spray.
- If approached, be aggressive and fight back.
Cathy Ellis is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain Outlook