The number of cougar sightings in Squamish fluctuates from year to year, but this summer the number of reported complaints to conservation officers is surging to the high side.
"We've had years in the past where there have been more sightings than usual and this is definitely one of them where there are more incidents occurring than usual," said Chris Doyle, an inspector for the B.C. Conservation Officer Service. "Often it'll just be a few individuals, so it could be a family of cougars that are dispersing and they're around the community and they are younger cats that haven't necessarily found their ideal hunting grounds or home range so they're around the community. We can have one or two animals that are generating a lot of complaints."
The most common sightings reported in Squamish have been on mountain bike trails that cut through densely wooded areas, but Garibaldi Highlands resident Jim Sandford woke in late August to two cougars playing with his shoe in front of his house.
"I made noise and shone a very bright light on one but didn't seem to startle it, then I noticed the other one in the treeline...I don't know much about cats but they were similarly sized and didn't seem very big so I think they were two juveniles from the same family," he said. "They actually lay down and fell asleep for a while, even in the bright light they just sort of closed their eyes and lay there literally flat out about 15 feet from the house. It was pretty cool to see them that close. They're a super-impressive animal."
Sandford - an avid solo trail runner - said that after 20 years and countless black bear sightings in Squamish, he didn't feel threatened by the presence of the cougars. The morning after the sighting in his yard he tackled a three-hour run alone through Singing Pass in Whistler.
"I go in the forest a lot running and I've never seen a cat. For me, part of the enjoyment of the trail running is being solo, so I think I'm not really too concerned... I run with a knife because when I'm running I like to go extra light, not with bear spray or horns or bells - that's too heavy for me so I have a small little blade and I keep my cadence lower and my head up and while I'm more aware now it hasn't changed anything."
According to Doyle, a family reported a cougar attack on their housecat last week, but because the incident took place on the edge of the forest on Tantalus Road in dry weather, which makes tracking more difficult, and because the cougar didn't display aggressive behavior towards humans, the conservation service decided not to bring in tracking dogs from Maple Ridge or Vancouver Island.
"This month alone we've had dogs up five different times when there has been an incident that has been human incident related," said Doyle (of August). "Those incidents were on the mountain bike trails where the cougars were approaching people. "
Cougars typically hunt deer as their main prey, but will also eat smaller game like squirrels, beavers, birds, rabbits and raccoons. Doyle said while some big cats might hunt house pets in human populated areas, they typically can't survive on that alone.
"It's possible that you'll get a cougar that specializes in coming in at night and grabbing housecats because the housecats are out on the prowl hunting wildlife themselves, but they need to eat a lot of prey to survive so they're going to go where the food is so if that's not enough to sustain them, which it's not, they'll move on to other things," he said.
As timing is critical in cougar sightings the B.C. Conservation Service is encouraging residents to call them immediately upon seeing a cat in their area.