Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Being a student in a wildlife ecology lab means tagging along on other people’s fieldwork. Today, I joined Chloe – PhD student on the Southern Interior Mule Deer Project – to visit a mule deer mortality site.
Mule deer (see here for Wikipedia lowdown) have been declining across south-central British Columbia and Chloe is part of a collaborative project (Southern Interior Mule Deer Project) that will find out why. One aspect of Chloe’s PhD is looking at mule deer survival in the area, and that means two things; collaring mule deer to see when they die, and then finding the carcass to identify how they died (and to retrieve the GPS collar). I’ve joined Chloe twice now and both occasions were exciting for very different reasons.
The first mule deer I ever saw was partly frozen in the freezer at the local wildlife biologists’ lab. She (all the collared individuals are female) was visibly thin and had died in unusual circumstances. We did a full necropsy (aka post-mortem/autopsy) and found that she had puncture wounds to the stomach and a serious case of pneumonia. I’ll spare you any additional details on this one because I know you’re only reading for the cougar story.
The second time I joined Chloe quickly because one of my top fieldwork experiences! Chloe had received notification that one of the deer had died on a slope a couple of hours outside of Kelowna. We set off in the morning and as we chatted along the way the topic turned to cougars, a major predator of mule deer in the area. Neither Chloe nor I had ever seen a cougar and we both agreed that while we would like to see one, we’d prefer to see one from the safety of the car, certainly not when we’re on foot!
Anyway, we navigated to within 500 m of the deer’s location, parked the truck, and started a steep hike up and over a ridgeline where we thought we’d find the deer. It certainly felt like cougar country. Armed with bear spray and talking as much as we could between gasps of breath, we climbed up the slope. Just as we started traversing toward the deer, I spotted a long tawny tail through the trees about 50-100 metres away. The cat was moving slowly enough for us to clearly see her whole body as she casually strolled into the trees ahead of us. We stopped. Still ahead of us but slightly to the right I saw another glimpse of movement, this time it was not a tawny body, but a much smaller, spotted body with a wobbly gait. It was a kitten! With heightened adrenaline and a sense of awe we watched as the kitten also moved off into the trees, thankfully in the direction of Mum.
We waited for a couple of minutes until we were confident the kitten was with Mum, and we would be safe to continue. Then, bear spray in hand, we made the rest of the way to the carcass, calling as we went. There wasn’t much time for inspecting this carcass given that the cougar might still be close by, so I kept watch with regular shouts of “Hey Coug” - because I was lost for anything better to say – while Chloe set about removing the deer head and femur to send to the provincial wildlife vet for testing.
As soon as we could, we loaded up our backpacks and hotfooted it back to the truck, still looking around and making noise as we went, neither of us fancying our chances against a cougar down that slope. Thankfully for us, she had looked in good condition and had recently made a successful kill. Back at the safety of the truck we got thinking; what is the correct way to behave if you encounter a cougar, and did we do it right? We did, and here’s a list of recommendations in case you encounter one in the future.
Stay calm – Hold your ground or walk away slowly, don’t run! Never turn your back.
Make yourself big – Lift up your backpack or hiking poles, open your jacket like a sail, pick up children, keep pets close and stand in a group. Never bend down or crouch.
Make noise – Bang your water bottle, shout, yell, clap your hands. Speak slowly, never shriek.
Give the cougar a way to escape – Never approach.
Throw things – If the animal doesn’t move away, throw things.
Fight back (if it comes to it) – Use anything you have as a weapon, try to remain on your feet and face on to the animal.
In any instance, prevention is best, so always travel through cougar country in company and making noise. That’s what we did, and not only were we extremely privileged to see a beautiful adult and kitten, but we were safe and so was she.