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Cougar on the prowl near Morden

Lorne Stelmach

By Lorne Stelmach

Local and provincial officials have been on the lookout for a cougar sighted on the west end of Morden.

The Morden Police Service and Manitoba Conservation are working together after having received a number of cougar sightings in the region.

The sightings are unconfirmed because no physical evidence - be it tracks, hair or scat - has been found, said Bill Watkins, a wildlife biologist in Manitoba Conservation's wildlife and ecosystem protection branch.

Watkins said one of two people who reported a sighting has been interviewed. That person claimed to have seen the wild animal on a trail next to a creek on Morden's west side Saturday at 7 a.m., Watkins said.

Morden resident Howard Reichert said he spotted a cougar on the edge of a coulee southwest of Morden earlier this spring.

Attracted by deer

Officials believe they have a good idea of what has lured the cougar into an area which is out of the predator's typical known range - a healthy deer population.

"The increased deer population in Morden may be, as a result of people feeding the deer over the winter," said Sgt. Brent Menzies. "This is an offset result of the deer population becoming accustomed to the human population as a source of food."

As a result, Menzies added that they are"working with Manitoba Conservation to find a way to move the deer population out of the area."

Presence known

Although Manitoba is not part of the cougar's typical range, the animal's presence in the province is certain.

Just ask Linda and Abe Dyck, who captured a photo of a cougar that passed through their Plum Coulee area yard in May, 2008.

"It is beyond doubt that cougars have been seen in Manitoba," reported Bill Watkins, a zoologist with the Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection Branch of Manitoba Conservation.

"Many credible sightings are reported every year, and the occasional hair sample or track confirms the presence of this predator," stated Watkins. "Unfortunately, we may never know the original source of Manitoba's cougars."

He said Manitoba Conservation averages about one confirmed sighting a year now.

While the animals are rarely seen, that doesn?t mean they restrict themselves to specific habitats.

"They are 'generalists' - mountains, prairies, deserts, rain forests. In the mountains, they're called mountain lions. In Florida, panthers, in deserts areas like the American southwest, pumas.

"Cougars normally have very large ranges and it's not uncommon for them to pass through inhabited areas," Watkins explained, adding "but they are very elusive and are rarely seen."

Cougars don't normally stay in one area for any length of time, Watkins continued, adding, however, a pregnant female will find and stay in a safe place while she gives birth and cares for her kittens.

Deer and larger animals like elk are definitely on a cougar's menu, and Watkins said the animal in question may well have been following deer reported in the area.

What you need to know

Cougars are a protected species in Manitoba, so it is illegal to deliberately kill them.

However, police and conservation officials this week offered area residents some information on what they need to know and what precautions they can take:

- Cougars are transient and will only stay in an area for a short time.

- They follow the deer population as a source of food.

- When they make a kill, they will usually drag the deer into the bush and bury the animal to return later to eat it.

- Cougars can usually be found in wooded areas up a tree.

- They are not attracted to compost materials or garbage.

- People should make some noise if going into a wooded area or walking secluded pathways. And it is best to stay away from creeks in those areas.

So what should you do if you encounter a cougar?

Obviously, leave it alone. Don't run because you'll look too much like prey. Back slowly away from it and make yourself appear as large as possible. That's usually enough to make the animal think twice about getting aggressive with you, said Watkins.

If the cougar does show signs of aggression and appears to be stalking you, make lots of noise, throw rocks and sticks at it. If you have a child with you, pick up the child (to prevent the child from running). Plus it also makes you look bigger.

"Generally speaking, respect the animal, but do not fear it," Watkins said.

"Cougar attacks (on people) are very rare," Watkins said, adding Manitoba has never had a reported cougar attack.

-- with files from Don Radford and the Winnipeg Sun