A visiting professor has allegedly stumbled upon an animal that hasn’t been reported in the north in several years - a cougar.
William Matthews, a geology and earth sciences professor at the University of Calgary, was in the Flin Flon area leading a geology field school. After classes concluded one evening, Matthews was riding his bike along a dirt road east of Denare Beach when he saw a strange silhouette ahead of him.
“I saw an animal in the middle of the road. That’s not unusual. You see deer and stuff all the time,” he said. “From a distance, I thought it was a deer. Then I got closer and I thought, ‘Um... that’s not a deer.’”
The professor is adamant that the animal he saw was a cougar.
“I started slowing down and when I slowed down, my free wheel started clicking and it just turned, looked over its shoulder at me and I thought this was clearly a cougar. I kept coasting and it just wandered off into the forest. I got a nice profile of it before it went into the forest,” he said.
Being in the middle of a bike ride, nearing sunset and by himself, Matthews didn’t stop to take photos.
“I’m on my own, in the middle of nowhere and I’m on a bicycle. I think I’ll keep going past it,” he joked, adding he monitored the forests carefully after seeing the animal.
“It was clearly a cougar. It was the right colouration, the right size. It wasn’t a very large cougar.”
While the natural habitat of the cougar can extend all the way from the Yukon to South America, cougar sightings are rare in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan and even more rare in northern areas. In Manitoba, most historical sightings of cougars have taken place in the Parkland and Interlake regions. The last reported cougar sighting in the north took place in 2013, when a motorcyclist near Snow Lake spotted an animal along Highway 39. Several other anecdotal sightings and stories have also been reported, with many not formally reported due to a lack of physical or photographic evidence.
The last reported cougar caught in Manitoba was found late last year when a hunter near Gilbert Plains found a deceased cougar along his trapline.
The latest statistics from Manitoba Sustainable Development put the number of cougars in the province in the double-digit range.
Cougars in Saskatchewan are typically found in the southwest portion of the province, most notably in the Cypress Hills area. The estimated number of cougars in Saskatchewan is unknown, but sightings in the north are rare.
According to a fact sheet from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, one to two-year-old cougars become independent of their mothers during late spring and summer. While attempting to find a home range, these young cougars may roam widely in search of unoccupied territory, presenting the most likely chance that cougars will fall in conflict with humans.
A geologist by trade, Matthews has undergone wild animal training in the past just in case he stumbles across a wild beast while in the field. Based in Calgary where cougar sightings are rare but not as abnormal – one was spotted at the city’s WinSport sports facility last week – Matthews has had his fair share of wildlife encounters in the past, but never with a cougar.
“We know there are animals like cougars around. We just never see them. It's like a fact of life living in the Rockies, that if you're going to do outdoor pursuits, you're going to be near cougars. I've already thought about what I should do if I'm around a cougar, because we know it could happen,” Matthews said.