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A closer look at Queen Myrt of Maxwell Lake

Photo provided by Meghan Beale
Meghan Beale (left) check’s Myrt’s vital signs while Samantha Widmeyer (right) takes hair, blood and whisker samples.

Masha Scheele

Her name is Myrt, she loves long strolls in the woods, her favourite food is venison, she weighs in at 105 lbs, and is thought to be around four years old.

She calls the Maxwell Lake area her home and because an unspayed female cat is called a queen, let’s just call her Queen Myrt of Maxwell.

This queen is of the cougar variety, and has a home range that spans around 150 square kilometres that includes the wilderness around Maxwell Lake, according to information gathered through the collar put on her in January 2018.

Technically, her name is F5, but her researchers, Meghan Beale and Samantha Widmeyer, master’s students at the University of Alberta, nicknamed her Myrt. Beale and Widmeyer studied cougar behaviour and ecology focusing on their predation on bighorns, in conjunction with the University of Alberta. Beale’s focus was on cougar habitat selection, while Widmeyer focused on cougar diet, and whether or not cougars specialized in certain prey.

“I was looking at how the landscape configuration affects their predation habits and their resource use,” said Beale, who now works as a wildlife biologist.

According to the study’s findings, Myrt consumes mostly deer and didn’t consume a single bighorn sheep while she was being studied.

“Generally cougars aren’t seeking humans or dogs or anything like that to eat them, the cougars that are involved in conflict are usually young males. They’re often starving, they’ve just left their mothers and are out on their own for the first time,” said Beale.

Myrt also had a litter of three or four kittens in the summer of 2018, but it’s unknown how many of her kittens survived or if they are still travelling with her, stated Beale.

“We know that F5 had kittens because her movements changed. Normally she moves from place to place but does not come back to the same location. When a female has kittens, she has great fidelity to a particular location (i.e. the den where she hides the kittens). Normally, the female will remain in the area for a couple of days after giving birth to nurse the kittens,” stated Beale.

Data from her collar showed that Myrt left her den once or twice per day in order to hunt nearby and then return as the kittens nurse for the first four to six weeks.

“The movement patterns on our map will look like a flower, with the den at the center of the flower and movements extending away from the den, then back again. Eventually, the kittens can begin travelling with their mother, after about seven to eight weeks. If it’s winter, you can often see tracks in the snow from kittens travelling with their mothers, which was how we estimated how many she had,” added Beale.

Normally, kittens stay with their mothers for one and a half to two years.

Females generally have a core area that they use, but one female may overlap in space with three of four other cougars, said Beale.

This means that Myrt may share certain portions of the area behind Maxwell Lake, but not likely at the same time. Based on the findings, cougars usually use different habitats within the same general territory.

“We have data where three or four females are close together but one might be using a particular area in May and then move out of that area and then a couple of weeks later another female may come and move into that same area where their home ranges overlap. Generally, they are not there in the same time and space,” said Beale.

Ranges for females are relatively close together, while males can range up to 900 kilometers squared in order to overlap many different females. Throughout their study, seven different cougars were collared, ranging as far east as Obed, north of the Athabasca river, south by the mines near Coalspur, and west into Jasper National Park.

Samantha Widmeyer preparing to release two hounds on a fresh cougar track, just north of Hinton, AB.
Photo provided by Meghan Beale

To collar and track Myrt, Beale and Widmeyer looked for fresh cougar tracks in the winter and hired houndsmen with their trained dogs to follow the tracks.

“It’s similar if you were to go hunt a cougar, the way we capture them is basically you set the hounds on fresh cougar tracks in the snow and the hounds have a GPS collar. The hounds will follow the track and then they will tree the cat,” said Beale.

After they received GPS confirmation that Myrt had been treed, Beale and Widmeyer hiked out with their equipment to immobilize her using a dart rifle and processed her on the ground before

Through tracking each of their collared cougars movements, the team visited 89 potential cougar kill sites from the beginning of their study in 2017 until January 2018.

The kill sites included deer, bighorn sheep, beavers, coyotes, elk, rabbits, and a marmot.

“I think that people should be aware and they should know how to recreate safely in the back country or even in their backyard or when they’re out hiking. So that they know the things to do so they can reduce conflicts with cougars,” said Beale.

Removing individual cougars from an area, could create a larger problem as it leaves room for a new individual to come and make a home range in that same area.

“Cougars reproduce any time of the year, they’re doing fairly well in Alberta. There’s always going to be another cougar to come into the range,” concluded Beale.

The Alberta Government website suggests people carry bear spray, keep children close, and walk your dog on a leash as a precaution in the back country.

In case of a cougar encounter, do not run or turn your back, do not play dead, bring your children and pets in close and show the cougar that you are not easy prey by making yourself look big and speaking loudly.

According to the Alberta government website, it is important to teach your children not to scream in fear or run away and instead stay near people.

If the cougar makes contact, fight back and don’t give up, using all means to hit the cougar in the face with rocks, sticks or your fists.

If the cougar appears to be unaware of your presence, gather children and pets in close, slowly and cautiously back away and leave the area.

If you spot a cougar, call the Fish and Wildlife office at (780) 865-8264.