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Prowling B.C.’s Chilcotin: researcher tracks cougar/caribou relationship

Senior wildlife biologist has followed fascination for large predators from Ireland to the Cariboo

Shane White started out as a young boy in Ireland fascinated by large predators. Now he is working on cougar research in the Chilcotin as the senior wildlife biologist for the Cariboo region.

In Ireland, there are no large predators at all, having been exterminated by humans centuries ago.

The last grey wolf was believed to have been killed in Ireland during a bounty on the animals, in the late 1700s, according to Ireland’s National Biodiversity Centre.

Growing up without large predators meant White had a lifelong fascination with all of these mystical creatures, which eventually led him to pursue a career studying them. His masters thesis research looked at Eurasian Lynx in Norway, and factors related to den site selection.

He also worked in Eastern Europe studying wolves, and then Italy.

“Pretty incredible tracking wolf packs through Roman ruins, and aqueducts, coming back to delicious Italian dinners every evening,” he recalled of the work he did there.

He later went to the United States, where he met his wife, and then came to Canada. The couple came to Williams Lake in 2017 just before the wildfires.

“So that was an interesting introduction to the area, but we absolutely love it here,” said White.

White is an expert on the predator-prey relationships between cougars and mountain caribou in the Chilcotin. He hopes his research will help shed light on the ecological relationships between cougars, wolves, wild horses, moose, deer species and caribou.

White’s team’s research in the Itcha-Ilgachuz area involves partnerships between the province of B.C., University of Northern British Columbia, Ulkatcho First Nation and includes working with the Tšilhqot’in National Government Rangers.

The research team collar and follow cougars in the study area around the Itcha-Ilgachuz Mountains in what is referred to as low elevation winter range for caribou.

Though not a ton of previous research exists in the region, the Boone and Crockett world record cougar was shot and killed in 1979 by Douglas Schuk near Tatlayoko Lake in the Chilcotin.

The species are a licence-hunted animal in most of the region, with the hunting season going from about September to April, with a bag limit of two and each harvested cougar requiring inspection. It is illegal to hunt a family group of cougars.

It is very difficult to measure density of the species in the region, and White said the project they are working on will help provide some data in the research area.

Cougars have been documented to eat a diverse spectrum of species across their range throughout much of North and South America. Two hundred and thirty-two species have been documented as cougar prey and eighty per cent of their diet tends to be large ungulates, meaning hoofed mammals. Some cougars will tend to specialize in one type of prey, which can put some small ungulate herds at risk if a cougar decides to prey predominantly on their species.

The research in the Chilcotin has already uncovered some notable examples of predatory behaviour, including a cougar attacking, killing and eating a yearling black bear.

White also described some interesting behaviour his study has observed, including one male cougar they have nicknamed “Buck” who appears to specialize in eating free ranging horses. The large male shows the scars of some of his battles with the large mammals.

While southern studies have confirmed cougar as significant predators of caribou, this had not yet been well-documented in the north. A suspected case of cougar predation in 2012 in the Itcha-Ilgachuz was unable to be confirmed.

The mountain caribou population in the Itcha-Ilgachuz has been going through a continuous rate of decline since 2003. While biologists know wolves have been a direct cause of many caribou deaths, there have been other driving factors leading to the increased interaction of caribou and wolves such as changing landscape and increased disturbances caused by forest fires, logging, and improved access for predators.

While wolf population reduction has been done as an immediate response to this caribou population decline in the area, White said this is not a long-term solution.

He noted the habitat piece is the crucial part of helping the threatened species. The research the team is doing will also help shed light on the greater ecosystem and predator-prey dynamics.

Radio and GPS collars have been used to study the caribou population for many years, which provide information on caribou activity, movement and cause of death.

White said within 24 hours of a suspected death of a caribou, his team will attempt to go in and take a variety of samples, try to verify cause of death, and try to determine the caribou’s health.

His team confirmed a cougar kill of a caribou on the herd in 2018 and have since been documenting more cougar predation.

“It’s definitely increasing,” said White, noting this year there have been four confirmed cases of cougar predation on the herd.

There is a complicated ecological web of interactions in the Chilcotin, which White and his team are hoping to shed some light on. This includes the presence of horses for prey.

“In the Chilcotin, it’s quite unique, there’s not a lot of places in North America where you have a large population of feral horses or free-range horses overlapping native species,” said White.

The supply of horses could potentially be influencing the normal predator-prey relationship for cougars in the Chilcotin.

“We were curious, could this population of horses be helping to sustain the cougars through fluctuations in their primary prey and allow for unsustainable predation on their secondary prey — caribou.”

Grizzly bears, black bears and wolves all add another layer of complexity to these interconnected predator-prey relationships in this remote region.

His research is looking at whether some cougars are specializing in caribou predation, if the risk for caribou is related to where moose, horses and deer overlap with their territory, and competition between other large predators and what overlapping or allocation of hunting territories for these animals means for cougar-caribou predation.

White also detailed some of the strategies and techniques the team uses to safely sedate, collar, photograph and gather data on cougars.

Another interesting finding so far he noted is they have found a lot of older cougars in their research area.

Cougars generally can live to be eight to 13 years old, with mortality of young being about 50 per cent in the first year and females giving birth to one to four young at a time. These kittens stay with the mother about two years before striking out on their own.

Full grown females weigh around 80-120 pounds and males usually weigh 120-180 pounds.

White’s talk had the crowd laughing out loud with some of his stories and full of questions at the end even of an hour an a half information session.

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Ruth Lloyd

About the Author: Ruth Lloyd

After moving back to Williams Lake, where I was born and graduated from school, I joined the amazing team at the Williams Lake Tribune in 2021.
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