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Cougar attack raises concerns over territory

The B.C. mother who rescued her three-year-old from being bitten and scratched by a cougar says she is concerned that overdevelopment in her community contributed to the attack.

Maureen Lee got between her daughter Maya Espinosa and the 40-kilogram cougar Tuesday evening after the animal pounced as they were picking berries in Squamish, 65 kilometres north of Vancouver. She threw the cat off and carried the girl to safety.

She said that while she is not an environmentalist, being so close to a normally reclusive animal has made her think about the big picture of local development. Squamish is due to double in population to at least 30,000 within the next 20 years.

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"I don't want to be an anti-Olympic or anti-golf course or ski resort. I would just like to look at what is affecting the cougars and see if we can help them in some ways," Ms. Lee said.

The cougar, a healthy juvenile male, was later cornered and shot in a nearby residential area.

Ms. Lee wiped away tears as she said she could not blame the cougar for doing what is natural.

"He was beautiful. I could register that. He was a little bit fluffy around the edges because he was so young, and his eyes were huge," she said.

Maya sustained injuries to her head and left arm that required stitches, but her mother said she is recovering well.

It was the first attack by a cougar on a human in the region, local conservation officers said, and followed 30 reported sightings in the previous 10 days. An adult female was shot to death in Squamish a week ago after it killed and ate a dog.

Ms. Lee said she understands why the cougar in this case had to be shot, but is concerned about how the species would survive in the future.

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"Urban development is a key factor in this, but there are other things," she said. "There are reduced numbers of salmon returning to our rivers and there are other predators that eat the salmon and maybe the things they are now eating would be what the cougars normally eat."

Brian Vincent of Big Wildlife said human encroachment into bear, coyote and cougar habitat is leading to increased conflicts.

"Cougars are wide-ranging animals, and with the development that is happening here, which is a lot of sprawl, a lot of habitat is being fragmented," he said

"There are people coming to Squamish from other places. They love the recreation, the outdoors, but many don't understand what it is like to live where there are cougars and bears. It is incumbent on local officials to educate the public."

A billion-dollar upgrade of the Sea to Sky highway connecting the community with Whistler and Vancouver, and a higher profile of the picturesque region during the 2010 Olympics is expected to draw new residents and visitors.

As well, dozens of construction projects, including a major ski-resort development on a nearby mountain, are either under way or planned.

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Squamish Mayor Greg Gardner called 2009 "a very unusual year" for cougar activity. He said the district is trying to minimize impact on wildlife in its development plans.

"We have approved a 12-storey high-rise and we have a town-hall meeting next week to explore further high-rise potential. We're trying to increase density in order to minimize urban sprawl," Mr. Gardner said.

"I spoke to the conservation officer involved [in hunting down the cougar from this week's attack]and he said there is no answer as to why there is so much cougar activity this year."

The proposed $900-million Garibaldi at Squamish resort, located about seven kilometres north of where the cougar attack took place, is the largest development now planned for the region.

Currently at the environmental assessment stage, the four-season resort would cover 3,360 hectares on Brohm Ridge. It could be approved by the B.C. government as soon as December.

The resort's president, Mike Esler, said he would not be surprised if residents brought up Tuesday's attack at a public meeting on the resort scheduled for June 24.

"It's a very unfortunate incident. We'd be bringing more people to the area and there would be impact issues, but you'd have to manage it," Mr. Esler said.

"We truly want to make this the most environmentally sustainable development in Canada."

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