What Happened to Mount Royal’s Raccoon Population?

Tourists and pot-smoking Montrealers alike gather at sundown at the Belvédère Camillien-Houde viewpoint, which looks east out to the Olympic Stadium and beyond. Car owners unabashedly blare music from their cars, doors ajar, while fat raccoons gingerly maneuver their way into garbage cans (specifically designed to keep them out) and amuse tourists by posturing under the viewing scopes.

This summer, I was disappointed that there were fewer and fewer raccoons up there. So I looked into where they had gone.

Over half of Mount Royal’s raccoon population was killed last fall by canine distemper, an infectious disease common in large populations of raccoons. Along with rabies and overfeeding, distemper is traditionally one of the biggest killers of urban raccoons.

Claude Drolet, head of environmental conservation programs at Les Amis de La Montagne, explained that last year’s high fatality rate has quelled an alarming spike in the park’s raccoon population over recent years. According to him, the swell was directly linked to people feeding the animals on Mount Royal and successful disease vaccination programs run by the City of Montreal.

Les Amis de La Montagne, whose mandate is to protect and preserve Mount Royal’s ecosystems, has monitored the lookout for over eight years, with staff members visiting the spot several times a week to encourage people not to feed or touch the raccoons. In recent summers, up to 50 hungry raccoons clustered at the lookout point – unfazed by the crowds – in search of human food.

Despite the recent drop in numbers, Drolet anticipates the population will grow again, and believes that the threat an unhealthily large population of raccoons poses on the “equilibrium of [the Mountain’s] ecosystems” is a “long term problem.”

“They put a lot of pressure on other species in the park,” he explained – in particular the salamanders, small mammals, eggs, and small birds they prey on.

Monitoring the park’s raccoon population is difficult. The turn-out at Camillien-Houde is one inexact indicator. The last concrete figures are from 2012, when 109 adult raccoons were captured and vaccinated against canine distemper. This led officials to estimate that there were around 200 raccoons in the park in total, once they had accounted for young raccoons not vaccinated.

This number, which is likely to have grown even larger between 2012 and 2016, is at least six times the number of raccoons found in the same area of wild habitat. The oversized population, alongside the fact that the canine distemper vaccination program was axed after 2012, is likely to have caused last year’s distemper outbreak. Large populations of urban animals are prime targets of the debilitating disease, which causes an unpleasant smorgasbord of symptoms, ranging from respiratory infection and conjunctivitis to pneumonia, diarrhea, paralysis and brain damage. The viral disease also affects dogs, skunks, and foxes.

Drolet believes that the current situation, with the raccoon population halved, is good news for the mountain. “It is worse to have a vaccinated population of raccoons that grows dangerously high than having a non-vaccinated population.”

Dr. Suzanne MacDonald, a raccoon behavior specialist from York University, says population swings like those witnessed on the mountain are normal. “In every species, there will be population explosions, followed by crashes—this is a natural phenomenon that tracks the availability of food resources, as well as things like parasites, disease, weather and climate change,” she said. She added that fluctuations like Mount Royal’s are “nothing to get excited about in the short term.”

Denis Fournier is wildlife management technician for Montreal’s department of large parks and is responsible for managing raccoons in the city’s parks. He explained that while the distemper vaccination program was ended because “a lack of resources,” the rabies program is still active. Efforts against rabies are inevitably prioritized given the deadly disease can be transferred to humans.

While no cases of raccoon rabies were reported in Quebec between 2009 and 2014, a case of raccoon rabies was discovered in Akwesasne Reserve in 2015, an overspill from an outbreak in northern New York state. As a result, more than 640,000 edible rabies vaccine-laced bait traps were dropped from planes last summer along the US-Quebec border. These same baits have been distributed in Montreal’s raccoon-heavy parks this summer

Jimmy Carter, ex-president of the United States, is partially responsible for the rapid spread of the disease in North America. When several members of his cabinet missed the opportunity to go “coon hunting” over the weekend in 1976, his administration shipped raccoons in from Georgia to Virginia. The Georgian critters were diseased and that particular strain of rabies has been expanding ever since in a north-easterly direction.

Quebec’s incidence of raccoon rabies pales in comparison to Ontario. In 2016, 171 Ontarian raccoons were reported to have contracted rabies in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Toronto has earnt the moniker “the raccoon city of the world” on account of its high density of raccoons. MacDonald estimates an urban density of over 100 raccoons per square kilometer in the city.

A Toronto man was fined in June for drowning two baby raccoons in a trash can and the local media is frequently peppered by negative reports and vitriolic comment sections about the so-called ‘trash pandas.’ (MacDonald counters that a recent survey she ran demonstrates most Toronto residents enjoy having them in the city).

In Montreal, the furry creatures get far less media attention, and according to both Drolet and Fournier, Montreal’s raccoons are more likely to fall foul of the reverse problem: residents’ and tourists’ over enthusiasm to come into contact with them and feed them.

While raccoon numbers have dropped on Mount-Royal, the same may not be true of the city streets. Bill Dowd of Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control said he has seen a 20 per cent increase of raccoon calls in Montreal since January of this year. He added that Montrealers should be “diligent in hiring companies that deal exclusively in humane wildlife control and removal and exclusion techniques.” Studies show that 75 per cent of relocated raccoons do not survive.