There was a small sense of dread after a Springhill couple spotted what they suspect was a cougar, and it wasn’t for their safety.
“Right afterward I thought ‘Oh great. Here come the cougar jokes,’” Sabrina Steeves said.
Steeves and her partner, Ken Godfrey, were enjoying a nature drive Oct. 11, on the Mansfield Road near Northport, a small community 22 km away from Pugwash, when something caused them to stop dead in their tracks. Crossing the road in front of them was a large, four-legged creature and, in their opinion, they have little doubt it was a cougar. The couple had come to approximately a car length or two away, giving them a chance to observe the animal up close.
“There was no pattern to it. It never ran. It never bolted,” Godfrey said.
“White underbelly, white on the inside of the legs, giant paws, the ears, long tail. That was not a lynx. It was not a bobcat,” Steeves said. “Beautiful cat, but it was small like a juvenile.”
“I was so stunned I didn’t even think to take a picture,” Godfrey said.
“We both had our phones and literally, right afterward, we were both like, ‘Why didn’t I take a picture of that,’” Steeves said.
“Hindsight 20-20, we should have thrown something out to mark where it was so you could look for tracks,” Godfrey said.
Officially, there are no cougar populations in Nova Scotia and evidence has yet to be found to definitively prove there could be. Nonetheless, stories of the fabled animal are reported every year. Godfrey and Steeves decided to share their story on Facebook and instead of skepticism they found themselves part of a small community of persons who feel they have also seen a cougar here in Nova Scotia.
The possibility one or more cougars in the area is taken very seriously by the Nova Scotia Dept. of Natural Resources [DNR]. Kim George, a biologist with the department, says a number of credible reports have come into the department over the last couple years, but so far no physical evidence has helped prove the existence of a cougar species in the area.
Nonetheless, she encourages anyone who thinks they have seen a new species in the province to call their local DNR office as soon as possible.
“The big thing is to report as soon as they see something so we can collect any evidence,” George said.
To determine if DNR will send someone into the field, callers are interviewed about when and where the sighting occurred, and questions like time of day, clarity and closeness to the sighting. Physical evidence, however, is best.
“Anything we could collect – if there was a track we could make a cast, or collect hairs,” George said.
After interviews are conducted and any evidence is collected, the department consults with experts. Bones and hairs, especially, can be DNA tested to determine if the sighting was indeed a visiting cougar or one of the province’s native species like the bobcat, which can grow to weigh 40 lbs. The dept. receives between 25 and 50 reports each year and George says in the last few years she’s done follow-ups in the field about a dozen times.
So far, nothing.
But a lack of evidence does not necessarily mean an absence.
The wily coyote
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the eastern cougar extinct in 2011 while Canada has not taken a final position on the matter, saying the evidence, or lack of it, remains insufficient.
This does not rule out, however, the potential for another cougar subspecies, like the North American cougar, to migrate eastwards.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” George said.
An example of this happening is the coyote.
The first coyote trapped in Nova Scotia occurred in 1977. Until then, most sightings were assumed to be dogs or false reports.
Today, it's believed the Western coyotes began migrating towards the east in the 1800s before finally arriving in the province in 1976. By then, through interbreeding with wolves, it had evolved into its own genetically distinct subspecies – the Eastern Coyote.
In 2015 a total of 11,605 pelts were collected over five years following a cull to stabilize the coyote population in the province after 19-year-old Toronto folk singer Taylor Mitchell was killed by two coyotes in Cape Breton.