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Published: 9/18/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Take pause at cougar glimpse

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

The cougar, aka mountain lion, was back in wildlife news in Michigan last week with the “capture” of a big cat on trail camera videotape on private property in Ontonagon County, in the western upper peninsula.

The image, recorded on Sept. 8 and announced Tuesday, clearly shows a cougar walking right in front of the camera. The footage clearly and curiously shows the animal wearing an ear tag and a radio collar. Personnel from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources verified the camera site and the location of the camera on Monday.

“We’re still checking with some states and Canadian provinces,” said MDNR spokesman Mary Detloff. “We’re not sure who’s tagging cougars right now.” She added that it was not the MDNR. Only western states are said to have collared cougars for research, so the animal likely traveled a long way to reach the U.P.

Adam Bump, a wildlife biologist with the MDNR’s cougar team, deemed it “a very interesting sighting given the fact that the cougar has been radio-collared and ear-tagged.

Cougars were native to Michigan and Ohio but were thought to have been extirpated around the turn of the last century. The last known wild cougar in Michigan was killed near Newberry in 1906, the MDNR said. But while sightings regularly are turned in, verifying them is difficult.

The MDNR did confirm two sets of cougar tracks and the site of a cougar photograph in the eastern Upper Peninsula in 2009, and it verified several sets of cougar tracks in Marquette and Delta counties in 2008.

North Dakota and South Dakota have the nearest established cougar populations, but transient cougars ranging far afield from these areas have been known to travel hundreds of miles in search of new territory.

The new sighting no doubt will renew the cougar controversy in the East. It pits state and federal wildlife agencies against such private organizations as the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy of Bath, Mich., which steadfastly maintains that the agencies are in denial about the widespread if elusive existence of wild breeding populations of eastern cougars.

Most often cited by wildlife agencies is a lack of hard evidence, a road-killed cougar carcass, for example. That contention, however, was knocked into a cocked hat in June when a road-killed wild cougar carcass turned up in Milford, Conn., in the heavily settled Northeast.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection claimed after DNA testing at a federal lab in Montana that the dead cougar originated in the Black Hills of southwest South Dakota, 1,500 miles away. Authorities further said the same animal’s DNA presence had been confirmed at one site in Minnesota and three sites in Wisconsin and that sightings in Michigan as well are believed to have been the same animal.

In its September-October newsletter, The Wildlife Volunteer, the MWC strongly disputes the Connecticut agency findings. “The story CDEEP is trying to weave is not believable,” asserts Patrick Rusz, MWC director of wildlife programs and a strong advocate of the presence of breeding populations of eastern cougars. “Linking the cougar in Connecticut with confirmed sightings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan is nonsensical when timing is considered.

“Michigan confirmations occurred over a two-year-period. How did the cougar then move on to Connecticut? Back through Wisconsin, across the Mackinaw Bridge, or through Canada? Any of these scenarios would be unlikely.”

Notes the MDNR’s Detloff: “We’ve never denied the presence of cougars in the state,” adding that wild ones, not any possibly escaped or purposely released from captivity, like come from the Dakotas. “They are quite prolific walkers,” she stated.

Detloff added: “We never have had evidence presented to suggest a breeding population of cougars in the state. We’ve never found a litter.”

Ironically, it should be noted that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in March declared that the eastern cougar as a subspecies has been extinct since the 1930s. In its finding, the service acknowledged cougar sightings in the East, but declared these animals are captive escapees or willful releases of a domesticated South American subspecies (imported), or long-range wild wanderers from the West, as the state of Connecticut declared with the Milford road-kill.

Cougars tracks are about three inches long by three and a half inches wide and usually show no claw marks. Nor will you likely find a cougar kill, such as a deer carcass, because a cougar typically would initially leave it largely intact and bury it beneath sticks and debris.

Still, the MDNR is willing to take cougar reports and evidence. Call a local MDNR office or its 24-hour Report All Poaching line, 800-292-7800.Cougars are classified as an endangered species in Michigan, so it is illegal to kill, harass or otherwise harm a cougar except in self defense.

More details about the species can be found online at michigan.gov/cougars, including safety precautions.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife does not recognize or protect wild cougars as a species present in Ohio. It is not listed on the state furbearers list or in the “A to Z Species Guide,” for example. Generally the state does not deny the possible, occasional presence of escaped or willfully released pet cougars in the wild.

But in any case wild cougars have neither recognition nor protection in Ohio. Nor have any wild cougars or breeding populations been confirmed. State wildlife authorities usually attribute the cougar reports they receive to coyotes or overgrown house cats that have been misidentified, often in poor light. However, suspected cougars should be reported; in northwest Ohio call Wildlife District 2, 419-424-5000, and statewide start with 1-800-WILDLIFE.

Contact Steve Pollick at spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068



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