LANSING - Few issues addressed by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment in recent years have been as controversial as cougars.
Also known as mountains lions or pumas, cougars are large felines that once roamed much of Michigan. The last record of a wild cougar being taken in Michigan came from Newberry in 1906. The species was thought to be extirpated.
Reports of cougar sightings have occurred intermittently since then, however, and have multiplied in recent years. The department has set up a four-person team to investigate and respond to reported cougar sightings.
DNRE furbearer specialist Adam Bump shows off a cougar pelt that measures 57 inches in length, not including the tail. (Photo courtesy of David Kenyon, DNRE)
DNRE furbearer specialist Adam Bump examines a skull from an adult cougar. (Photo courtesy of David Kenyon, DNRE)
The four DNRE biologists traveled to New Mexico to train with experts on cougar behavior and identifying cougar signs. Adam Bump, the furbearer specialist with the DNRE in Lansing and a member of the team, spent time with cougar experts who tracked, treed and radio-collared an animal in New Mexico. He and the others learned to identify tracks, scats and kills made by cougars.
With reports of cougars in Michigan becoming more commonplace, the Cougar Team has looked at numerous photographs, video clips and tracks submitted by the public.
"Our goal is to verify sightings," Bump said. "We want to make sure that what people think are cougars actually are cougars. We want to know where cougars exist in the state and we have the knowledge and training to determine whether tracks or other signs were made by cougars or something else.
"The most common things we get are pictures of house cats or pictures of dog tracks," Bump said. "A large dog can have tracks similar in size to a cougar. We occasionally get tracks that we can't identify, but most of the time we see tracks that we can determine are not cougar tracks."
But sometimes, they are.
Brian Roell, a DNRE biologist working out of Marquette and a Cougar Team member, said he saw tracks that he thought were consistent with a mountain lion in September of 2008 in Marquette County.
"A gentleman came in with some pictures of tracks from northern Marquette County and when I saw them, I thought they definitely warranted further investigation," Roell said. "I went out and looked at a set of tracks that covered about a half-mile of Lake Superior shoreline. We made plaster casts - it was moist sand; you couldn't ask for a better tracking surface - and after showing them to the Cougar Team, we thought they were consistent with a mountain lion."
The Lake Superior tracks were the third set of tracks in the U.P. in 2008 that appeared to have been made by cougars. In March, DNRE personnel identified a set of tracks as probably made by a cougar in Delta County. Then in June, a U.S. Forest Service biologist found a set of tracks in Delta County, 37 miles away from the March tracks.
In 2009, two more sets of tracks that were likely made by cougars were found in the U.P., in October in Chippewa County and in November in Schoolcraft County. But the best evidence of cougars in Michigan to date came from an October photograph taken by a trail camera set out by a food plot by deer hunters in Chippewa County.
The DNRE sent a team to the location to examine the evidence.
"We saw nothing in the photograph to lead us to believe it was not taken there," said Biologist Kristie Sitar, a member of the team who works in the eastern U.P. "It was a cougar."
Despite the occasional presence of cougars in Michigan, there is no evidence that the animals are numerous, widespread or breeding. DNRE biologists believe cougars are occasional visitors to Michigan, but there's no evidence they are permanent residents.
"We do have some individuals that seem to be filtering into the state, probably from the Dakotas, probably young males," Roell said. "These animals are moving east. We're getting reports of cougars from Iowa and Minnesota and these animals are definitely capable of long-distance movement."
Despite reported sightings, the DNRE has never verified the body of a road-killed animal, which is a fairly common occurrence in states with established cougar populations. Nor has the department ever verified a report from hunters with hounds treeing a live cougar.
Still reports come in, almost daily, Bump said. The DNRE continues to monitor these reports, attempting to verify them, spending a considerable amount of time following up on reports that include physical evidence.
One recent cougar report from Oceana County included a photograph that showed a feline near a chain link fence. From the animal's size - as well as its appearance - biologists identified it as a house cat. Still, two DNRE staffers went to the scene to investigate.
"The foot prints measured only about an inch across," Bump said. "The average adult cougar's paw print is 3 1?2 to 4 inches across. The animal's stride was about nine inches. It was a house cat." Steve Chadwick, a DNRE biologist in southwest Michigan and a member of the cougar team, has a plywood cutout of a cougar. He often takes it to the location where someone has taken a photograph of a suspected cougar, puts out the cutout, takes a series of photos from the same vantage point, then compares the images.
"It works pretty well," Chadwick said. "Usually what happens is they say, 'Wow, I guess that's not a cougar.' "
But not always; Chadwick said that after he went through the process with one woman and confirmed the animal was not a cougar, she insisted she wasn't going to let her kids play out there.