John is a wildlife photographer living in Banff. For more of his stories and photos, please visit his website.
February 20, 1996: It’s -25 Celsius. I’m in the middle of a dark street and three deer have just sprinted past as if I don’t exist. Crouching, I half expect a cougar to leap into the street in hot pursuit. I’m still for as long as I can bear it; hoping, waiting. The cold creeping into me is finally too much. No lion, not tonight.
Waterton is a tiny resort town located in Waterton Lakes National Park in the southwestern corner of the province. For a week now, day and night I’ve spent countless hours searching for the elusive big cats that are the talk of the town. All I’ve seen are shadows, empty streets, and running deer.
Up to six mountain lions have made the Waterton townsite their regular stomping ground. The deer and bighorn sheep that used to graze local lawns fearlessly have reverted to wild animals, tense, ready to run at the drop of a hat.
Warnings were all over the townsite last summer, “CAUTION: Cougar in Area.” Locals and tourists alike were told to avoid running at dusk or dawn and to exhibit caution while hiking or biking (cougar attacks are often attributed to running in poor light conditions and dark clothing, thus being mistaken for a deer).
In January, park officials began a study of the cougar, in particular those frequenting the townsite. They’ve collared three in the past two weeks, one a scrawny female that roams main street every few nights at around 9:00pm.
This is news, so National Geographic has sent a crew, as has the Discovery channel. But no one who’s looking is finding what they came for. The people not looking, the locals and occasional winter visitors, are having piles of luck.
Three days before I arrived, a friend phoned from the local hotel, “You’re not going to believe what I saw here yesterday…a cougar…chasing a deer in the parking lot of the hotel!!” So of course, I’m staying in the same hotel, and after staring at the parking lot for hours on end I haven’t seen a thing.
So I started to walk around the town and question locals as to the whereabouts of the big cats. “There’s a female with kittens that lives right around here.” “I had one under my porch last spring.”Four sat on the steps of the watering hole downtown one night last August.” “I used to have a small dog.” Both my questioning and my walking have run into dead ends. I did hear of a big tom cat that lives under a bunch of logs a few kilometres out of town, but I’m not crawling through dark spaces to confront large predators.
Tonight’s my last night and I’m standing guard by the window again. Write a little, watch a little. It’s a comforting cycle. I’m ready, I’m watching.
Mountain lions are scarce in the Banff area, yet visitors and locals alike do have the chance of spotting one. Cougars have been sighted in recent years in front country sections of the park on the Bow Valley Parkway at Muleshoe, Backswamp and Fireside, on trails in the Mount Norquay and Tunnel Mountain areas, on the Moraine Lake Road, on the Sunshine access road and on the Lake Minnewanka Road.
The health of the population is unknown at this point, although there may be two or more different breeding females in the Banff townsite area. One had a litter of two kittens with her this winter east of Tunnel Mountain, however, one of those kittens has since been hit and killed by a train.
Another female has been tracked in the Sunshine-Healy Creek area and a kitten carcass was found under an elk kill early this winter. Researchers suspect that the female, who may or may not be a different female than the one using the area east of the town, killed the elk, then had the kill taken over by a larger male lion that killed the kitten.
In recent years, wildlife researchers have been monitoring cougar sign (tracks, spoor, etc.) in wildlife corridors surrounding Banff, and have found that cougars use the wildlife underpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway sporadically, particularly west of the townsite. By contrast, wolves rarely use the underpasses and some of the park’s wolf packs have never used an underpass.
Last spring, a mountain lion used the Fireside underpass to get from the Norquay and Cory slopes to the Vermilion area, and killed a cow elk at the end of Third Vermilion Lake. Numerous locals ran into the cougar as it guarded its kill, and eventually park wardens closed off the area so that the cat would not be further disturbed.
While the signs and sightings are encouraging, the Bow Valley has never been recognized as prime cougar habitat, and the loss of the kitten on the railway tracks this winter and the death of a male cougar on the Trans-Canada Highway last winter continues to leave some doubt about the health of the local mountain lion population.