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Big cat sightings on the West Coast

Charlie White has a popular YouTube channel, NLGhostWolf, where he discusses and explores the West coast flora and fauna, including cougars. – Submitted photos

By René J. Roy Editor-in-Chief

WEST COAST — The possibility of cougars being present in Newfoundland and Labrador has been a topic of debate for years. As recently as Dec. 1 on the Southwest coast, reports were shared on social media about the sighting of a very large black cat with a long tail in the Cape Ray area. The presence of a long tail rules out the possibility of it being a lynx sighting, as lynx have short, stubby tails.

While evidence may be lacking regarding the presence of cougars in the region, those who have reported sightings of the animal have no question in their mind about what they saw.

Charlie White of Stephenville has been documenting possible sightings and tracks of cougars on the West coast of the island since 2019, and said numerous individuals have been coming forward to share their own potential sightings with him.

An avid outdoorsman who was born and raised in the outdoors, being in and out of the woods with his father since he was three, White also has a video laying out the measurements and differences between cougar and lynx tracks, to show viewers why the tracks he once found just outside of Stephenville are quite possibly those of a cougar.

“I’ve seen two, a tan coloured cougar and, the best way to describe it would be, a charcoal cougar. The further north cougars travel, they go grey,” said White. “I saw them both on the island, one on top of Harris Hill in the Camp 185 area and one on the Hansen Highway about half a kilometre above Ned’s Pond.”

The cougar is a large cat individuals should be extremely cautious around if they do encounter one.

“A large male can go 220 to 240 (pounds). They can jump 18-20 feet vertically, up to 40 feet horizontally on a run,” said White. White, who has spoken with many wildlife department members, said the department can’t say officially that there are cougars in Newfoundland.

“Officially they say no. Unofficially they say yes. They have members that have seen them, but they say they don’t have any concrete proof.”

The first time White spotted a cougar was many years ago.

“My first sighting was about 12-15 years ago and I saw one again probably two or three years ago,” said White. “The encounters were always too quick. Most people who encounter them do so while they are in a vehicle and the cats are normally crossing a road and they’re not walking most of the time. They’re dashing across.”

White said that is the problem when it comes to properly documenting these encounters. It all happens so fast so people don’t have time to get the necessary evidence by the time they realize what they are seeing.

“It takes you a second because you see it and the first thing you try and do is identify it as something else, a known animal. Like, ‘That’s got to be a fox. No it’s not a fox. It doesn’t have a bushy tail.’ Or ‘maybe that’s a coyote. No, it doesn’t have a long snout like a coyote. It has a long rope-like tail, so definitely not a coyote or a fox. It’s a cat, and it’s a big one.’”

A friend of White’s created a Facebook page called ‘NL Unidentified Big Cat Sightings’ and sent away for everything Wildlife had on big cat sightings in the province. The department had over 300 pages.

Above: a size comparison chart that highlights the difference between a Lynx track and a Mountain Lion or Cougar track. Below: A large cat track near Stephenville, which White believes likely came from a cougar, next to one of his gloves. – via NLGhostWolf / YouTube

“A lot of their recent pages are of my findings,” said White. “The tracks that I found, the measurements I took on those tracks, things like that.”

White said he has zero doubts that there are cougars on the island.

“I believe 100 per cent they are here. I believe what we have here is the Eastern Cougar. Cougars were introduced. There was a guy… I can’t remember his exact name, but he was an American hunter who supposedly dropped a couple up North in one of the hunting camps and their intent was to release the cougars, put the dogs on them the next day, and go hunt them,” said White. “Supposedly, a big snowstorm came in and they were snowbound for a day or two in the camp. By the time the storm broke, the dogs couldn’t pick up the trail of the cougars. This happened in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.”

In response to email inquiries, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture issued the following statement:

“The Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture received one recent report of a possible large cat sighting in the vicinity of J.T. Cheeseman Provincial Park in November 2022. In 2021, two possible sightings of large felines were reported in western Newfoundland, and a possible large feline sighting in McKay’s was reported in 2019. Since 1960, approximately 100 reports of possible large feline sightings have been reported from various locations throughout the province. Investigations into these reports have not confirmed the presence of large cats, and there has been no evidence of animal tracks consistent with large felines. Evidence collected during these investigations, including photographs and hair samples where available, indicated the animals in question were lynx or domestic cats.

“With no evidence of large wild felines other than native Canada lynx in the province, the department cannot speculate on the impact other large feline species would have on the province’s ecosystem. As always, the public is encouraged to avoid wildlife encounters by containing garbage and other food sources, keeping dairy and meat out of composts, cleaning barbecue grills to minimize odour, and never feeding wild animals. If a wild animal approaches, stay calm, give the animal space and an escape route, speak calmly and quietly, avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Report unusual wildlife sightings to the nearest Forest Management Office.”

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