Cougars, the biggest wild cats in North America, are afoot in the upper peninsula and even the Michigan Department of Natural Resources agrees.
The MDNR recently verified two sets of cougar tracks and confirmed the location of a cougar photo, by a trail camera at night, in the eastern Upper Peninsula. The tracks were discovered in the DeTour and Gulliver areas, while the photo was taken near Bruce Township.
State biologists question whether the animals are part of a wild, breeding population, or domesticated cougars that have escaped or have been abandoned.
The MDNR says it does not have enough evidence to confirm a breeding wild population, and that irks the private Michigan Wildlife Conservancy of Bath, Mich. The conservancy believes the state has a small, remnant wild population.
"We don't know if it's an escaped or wild animal," said MDNR biologist Kristie Sitar, of the Newberry field office, about the photographed cougar. Same goes for those who left signs.
"You certainly can't tell from the tracks. We don't even know where they are right now," added Sitar, who noted that cougars have home ranges of 50 to 150 square miles.
"We feel that if we had reproduction, we would see that in road-killed animals. Eventually we would have a lactating female [cougar] hit by a car, or one which would show up treed [by bear hounds]."
She says she is skeptical about wild, breeding cougars in Michigan. She notes with 700,000 pairs of eyes - those of deer hunters - afield every November, and with "all those trail cameras out there, these kinds of things would show up."
Dennis Fijalkowski, the MWC's executive director, said two of the three recent MDNR-confirmed cougar sites "were in our study areas reported in 2001 - and [the MDNR] attempted to discredit us."
At Gulliver, he added, "we had a long-term study in 2002 and 2003 and we found two females and a male. We found six deer kills. We got scats there."
The MDNR's cougar team examined the tracks found Oct. 26 at DeTour, and the consensus was the tracks appear to have been made by a cougar. The team also investigated and confirmed the tracks found Nov. 2 near Gulliver.
"These are the first confirmed cougar tracks in the eastern upper peninsula, and we appreciate the cooperation of the callers who reported the tracks," said Sitar, who is a member of the state cougar team.
"Other landowners who believe they have evidence of a cougar on their property, such as tracks or a kill site, are encouraged to contact their local MDNR field office as soon as possible, which allows staff to investigate before the evidence is compromised. Without good evidence, like what we had in these two cases, verification becomes increasingly difficult."
The cougar photograph, taken by a trail camera on private property near Bruce Township in mid-October, has been under investigation by wildlife staff since Oct. 22. It shows what no doubt was a cougar at night walking through a food plot.
Cougars, also known as mountain lions, originally were native to Michigan but were thought to have been extirpated around the turn of the last century. Males run 120 to 180 pounds and females 80 to 130 pounds.
The last known wild cougar taken in Michigan was killed near Newberry in 1906. However, sightings are regularly reported and although verification is often difficult, the MDNR was able to verify several sets of cougar tracks in Marquette and Delta counties in 2008.
Established cougar populations are found as close to Michigan as the Dakotas, and transient cougars dispersing from these areas have been known to travel hundreds of miles in search of new territory.
Characteristic evidence of cougars include tracks, which are about three inches long by three and a half inches wide and typically show no claw marks, or suspicious kill sites, such as deer carcasses that are largely intact and have been buried with sticks and debris.
Reports of cougar tracks and other evidence should be made to a local MDNR office or by calling the department's 24-hour Report All Poaching line at 800-292-7800.
The MWC's Fijalkowski contended that cougars also are present in Ohio, though he acknowledged that state wildlife authorities here also remain skeptical.
In 2004 a Sylvania woman shot videotape of what appeared to be two cougars walking along a treeline next to a corn stubblefield some 300 yards from her home along the Ohio/Michigan line. The MWC brought in a forensics expert who declared the animals were cougars, which were thought to be roaming Whiteford Township in Monroe County. But the MDNR also disputed those findings.
"It's happening all over the East," the MWC spokesman contended. "We've got an expanding cougar population that came out of the Appalachians and it's coming west."
He said that he hopes the eastern population moves across Ohio - he contends it mainly now is camped in the southeast hill country - and eventually links up with and invigorates Michigan's small population, which he says suffers from inbreeding.
Still, the MDNR's Sitar needs more evidence about a wild population. She notes that with 700,000 pairs of eyes - those of deer hunters - afield every Nov. 15 to 30, and with "all those trail cameras out there, these kinds of things would show up."
Scott Butterworth, wildlife management supervisor for Ohio Wildlife District 2, said his office averages a cougar call a month. But, he added, "we are never able to confirm a cougar's presence based on the physical evidence."
Cougars are classified as an endangered species in Michigan and thus
protected by law. In Ohio they are unclassified and unprotected.
To learn more about cougars, go online to michigan.gov/dnr and click on Wildlife and Habitat.
Contact Steve Pollick at: