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Service dogs hot on the trail of aggressive cougars

Kevin Van Damme, a B.C. conservation officer in the Thompson Fraser Zone with his dog Boomer in Kamloops, B.C. January 9, 2014. Boomer survived a cougar attack near Kamloops at the end of December. Boomer was one of two dogs involved, the other dog was an elite tracking dog imported from the U.S. for a pilot project, who was mortally wounded in a clash with a cougar.

Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s conservation officers are getting some help hunting the cougars that are increasingly hunting pets, livestock or even humans in the province.

The service would like to expand an 11-month-old pilot project aimed at creating a corps of elite tracking dogs to help conservation officers eliminate threatening cats more safely and effectively. But the project received an emotional blow last month when one of the dogs was mortally wounded while tracking a cougar in the Kamloops area.

Bust was the "all-star" of the $15,000 test program, veteran conservation officer Kevin Van Damme said. The provincial environment ministry said in a statement that it has made no decision yet on replacing the dog.

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"The loss of Bust creates a huge hole," Mr. Van Damme said of the affable mixed-breed dog from Arizona. "Are we as effective as we were on Dec. 27? No, we're not."

The Provincial Predator Attack Team, led by Mr. Van Damme, was established to deal with human-wildlife conflicts, and the dog team was created to deal with cougars in response to increasing calls from the public. Since 2011, conservation officials have received about 3,000 cougar calls a year, of which 20 per cent require a response because the cat is a threat.

Until last March, when the pilot project began, conservation officers had tracked cougars with various dogs, some trained by Mr. Van Damme, others owned by local hunters who provided them to provincial officials.

The idea behind the pilot project was to field test two canines from the United States that were more focused, disciplined, obedient and efficient in tracking in both rural and urban areas.

Bust was posted in Kamloops, and a dog named Link was in Cranbrook. Until Bust was killed, Mr. Van Damme had worked with him throughout the Okanagan and Cariboo.

The dogs were trained by tracking conflict cougars at an Arizona ranch and learned to detect and follow the scent of a cougar. When they get close, they bay. Because cougars lack lung capacity for running very far, Mr. Van Damme said, they tend to react by climbing trees. Then the dog stays at the base of a tree and bays so officers can close in and deal with the cougar.

On Dec. 27, Mr. Van Damme was tracking a cougar with Bust and a four-year-old dog he trained called Boomer in the Kamloops area when the cat turned on Bust and sank its fangs into the dog's skull, inflicting a devastating injury. Boomer was also wounded before Mr. Van Damme could shoot the cougar. The cat fled, and was found dead the next day.

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Mr. Van Damme, struggling with his emotions, said the decision to put Bust down was gruelling.

"That was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my time working with dogs."

British Columbia author Paula Wild, who wrote the 2013 book The Cougar: Beautiful, Wild and Dangerous, said humans are having more problem encounters with cougars. The reasons include increased cougar populations due to less hunting and more urban people moving to rural areas for recreation and to live.

The Vancouver Island resident said bolstering conservation office resources with experienced tracking dogs is a good idea. "If anybody is tracking cougars, it is to the dog's advantage and the cougar's advantage to have the best tracking dogs possible, [because] then they aren't just running all over the countryside following a trail they don't want to follow – deer, coyotes, whatever," she said.

"If the cougar is causing problems with people, it is to everybody's advantage to find that cougar as soon as possible."

Mr. Van Damme hopes the program will continue and grow. The conservation service would like to see four such dogs posted across B.C., each with a handler.

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"[Bust] was such a happy dog. The dogs, their passion, their daily drive is to go in the field and hunt. I am their conduit to do that, so when Bust saw me, he was just so excited," he said. "His tail would be going so crazy. He was always so eager, and so willing to jump in and go to work."

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