He has sat in the shadows of too many wolf packs to count, he’s even walked with the enormous grizzly bear they call The Boss. But Canmore professional wildlife photographer and co-founder of EXPOSED Wildlife Conservancy, John Marriott, said nothing was quite like the two days he spent this winter with a mother cougar and her kitten.
“It was the most amazing thing ever,” he said.
“I was in this constant state of ecstasy. It was ecstasy yet so incredibly peaceful.
“The kitten would chase squirrels and they would come in and eat the deer and I could hear them crunching the bone. There are no real words to describe it,” said Marriott, walking along a snow-packed trail just outside of Canmore.
Marriott has been tracking cougars with hopes of gathering photographs and video for a conservation project he is working on about the elusive species and the struggles they face.
He said in his 30-year career, he has only seen five cougars. His time with the mama and kitten was both precious and rare.
“I kept my distance, paid a lot of respect to her, had my bear spray, but she was never aggressive in any manner,” said Marriott.
He explained he has walked away many times from animals who weren’t comfortable in his presence.
“They literally are right beside us all the time and they are probably watching us constantly, yet you think back 100 years, and there’s been one person killed by a cougar in all of Alberta,” he said.
“They are truly the predator that co-exists the closest to us and that we have the most potential for conflict with and yet we hardly see them.”
Every once in a while, typically in winter, a cougar does wonder into the Banff townsite. Parks Canada euthanized an eight-year-old female cougar in January after it took down a deer in town and had an encounter with a resident and their dog.
Not too long after, Parks decided to collar another cougar, that had been active just on the outskirts of town, to track her movements. Unfortunately she died after being immobilized.
“Exceptionally rare to happen and it certainly wasn’t our intention. It was totally keep her alive on the landscape make our job a little easier by having a GPS collar on her and releasing her but unfortunately that didn’t happen this time,” said Dan Rafla a wildlife management specialist with Parks Canada.
“It was a shock to everyone. People did take it hard,” he said.
Rafla said, of about 1,000 animals immobilized in Banff National Park over the years, five haven’t survived.
Parks Canada found the second cougar’s kitten hours before they live-trapped its mother. The kitten had died of natural causes.
“She had a perforated stomach — something had cut the inside of her stomach — and she had an infection and the kitten had died naturally from it,” said Rafla, adding the kitten was also recovering from a broken femur.
It turns out the kitten and cougar were the ones Marriott had been photographing.
“I was so emotional. For about a week after that, I couldn’t do a thing. It absolutely crushed me to my core.”
Marriott said he thinks Parks Canada absolutely did the right thing by trying to collar the mother.
“I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for Parks Canada staff to go through,” he said.
“Just goes to show how hard of a life these cougars and big predators have,” Marriott said.
His project is expected to be done in the fall.
Parks Canada has closed off a large area just outside the townsite and visitors are being asked not to venture off trails.