Cougars on the loose?

Residents report seeing at least two cougars on the loose in Sarnia-Lambton this winter, and we don’t mean the sort that maul young bucks in nightclubs.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources says it’s highly unlikely the big cats are prowling local woodlots, but isn’t ruling out the possibility.

“We do know there are cougars in Ontario,” said spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski. “We just don’t know where they came from, and it’s extremely rare to see them.”

The Journal is aware of at least six local individuals who believe they’ve seen a cougar this winter.

Phillip Henderson, 35, is an experienced outdoorsman who lives on Courtright Line. While deer hunting Dec. 6 he spotted an animal he’d never encountered before in the bush. His party was southwest of Petrolia between Rokeby Line and Shiloh Line, east of Fairweather Road, he said.

“It was about 40 yards away, black, and four to five feet long, crawling in front of a log. I seen it for about a minute and it took off,” he said.

Henderson said he ruled out possible animals one by one. Noting a long, rope-like tail he has absolutely no doubt he saw a cougar that day.

“I know what a cat looks like,” he said.

Another veteran hunter, who asked for anonymity, said the sightings are concentrated in central Lambton and of two distinct animals – one black and one tan-beige.

“Mature adults are seeing them, most of them outdoorsmen,” he said.

“(Cougars) can’t continue to hide on us in the winter. One of these times we’re going to come across their tracks and our coyote dogs are going to tree it. It’s as simple as that. And then we’re going to get pictures of one up in a tree.”

Cougars, also known as mountain lion, are Canada’s largest and most powerful wildcat. Males can reach two metres and weigh over 60 kilograms.

Ministry researchers have documented cougar tracks, droppings that tested positive for cougar DNA, and prey with distinctive signs of cougar kills, primarily in eastern and north-western Ontario.

“It’s really critical if people have any kind of evidence they let us know as soon as possible,” Kowalski said.

Cougar sightings are often misidentified lynx, bobcats, coyotes, even house cats. Some are of released cougars from zoos or private homes, she said.

A cougar shot in Muskoka in 2012 had its front claws clipped, indicating it was once captive.

The ministry offers compensation for attacked livestock and recently refunded three farmers — in Simcoe, Frontenac and the Kawarthas — for cougar kills.

Cougar wouldn’t be the first unexpected wildlife to appear in Sarnia-Lambton.

A black bear – the first in 100 years – was treed by a dog and destroyed beehives near Brigden in 2008. And a young bull moose stunned onlookers three years earlier near Bright’s Grove. Both animals had strayed far from their normal range, officials said.

“We’ve had a bear down here and we had a moose down here … so why couldn’t cougars also be here?” asked one hunter, who called the ministry \ about recent cat sightings.

The ministry urges anyone with hair samples, scat, photos or other evidence to call 1-800-667-1940.

“I’m not saying it’s completely out of the question,” Kowalski said. “But we absolutely need some proof.”

– George Mathewson