Naturespeak 

Pinning the cougar's tale on the Olympic planning committee

If you have to grab a cougar by the tail, hang on! As the cougar spins to swat you, the cougar's tail should pull you out of the way of the claws. This important lesson I learned while trying to radio-collar cougars for research. Fortunately, only once did I have to tail-dance with a cougar before the tranquilizer took effect.

During this study, I learned much about the cougar's physical abilities. From a standing position, a cougar can jump three metres into the air or leap across a four-metre gap. A 40-kilogram cougar can kill a 400-kilogram moose. The strength, speed, balance, control and grace of a cougar would inspire Olympic athletes.

As the study progressed, I learned three key lessons about ecology and the way that the cougar interacted with its world. First, even a seemingly simple ecosystem has complex interactions among ecological processes. Second, cougars live sustainably; that is, they live within the limits of the ecological processes of their territory. Third, cougars are adaptive; that is, their behaviour is flexible, and they learn from experience.

What can Whistler learn from the cougar?

As Whistler grows, people may decide that the goal for the community should be to sustain a lifestyle that conserves air quality, water quality, forest cover, and the native flora and fauna. This means that development can only occur within the limits of the ecological processes of the area. Sustainable development can occur when it does not impair the ecological processes that sustain the air, water, forests, or flora and fauna.

For example, the rate of water usage should be lower than the rate of water recharge; the quality of discharged water should be the same, or better, than the quality of the intake water; and the rate of logging should be lower than the rate of tree growth. Even when communities strive for sustainability, there are uncertainties about the best course of action because of the complexity of ecological systems. This is where being adaptive comes into play.

Adaptive Management is a formal process of "learning by doing". With Adaptive Management, a number of alternatives are proposed, and predictions are made about which options might yield the best results. When the different choices are implemented, the results are monitored.

After reviewing the outcome, management practices can be adjusted to account for new information. Consequently, Adaptive Management offers the flexibility to learn from experience and to adapt in the future.

This process can work for most types of planning decisions, such as which routes should transit buses follow, or what size to make the suites in the Olympic village.

Just as Olympic champions strive to achieve athletic goals that emulate the physical abilities of the cougar, I hope that the Olympic planners will strive to achieve goals that emulate the cougar's sustainability and adaptive abilities.

Scott Harrison is an ecologist who studies wildlife, wilderness, sustainability, and Adaptive Management. He has worked throughout British Columbia as a government researcher and has held a research fellowship at Oxford University. He is co-editor of the book, Conservation Biology Principles for Forested Landscapes.

Upcoming events

Cougar slideshow — Dr. Harrison will present a slideshow of his research on cougars to the Whistler Naturalist Society on Thursday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in the Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s Frontenac Room. Everyone is welcome.

Whistler Naturalists Society annual general meeting — Nov. 13, 6 p.m. in the Fairmont Chateau Whistler’s Frontenac Room. New board members needed. Positions available include:

• Weekly Naturespeak article co-ordinator. Great position for aspiring nature writers.

• Speaker Series Co-ordinator. Assist in organizing upcoming 2004 events; most speakers already booked.

• Federation of B.C. Naturalists correspondent.

• President, Vice-President, Secretary/Treasurer

For more information contact Veronica Woodruff at 604-935-8323, vwoodruff@whistler.ca.

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