Officials confirm cougar in eastern Michigan

November 04, 2009 at 12:37 PM

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - A photograph and tracks found recently in the Upper Peninsula have rekindled a debate over whether Michigan has an established, breeding cougar population.

The state Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday confirmed the authenticity of a cougar photo taken by a trail camera last month in eastern Chippewa County. The DNR also verified the discovery last week of cougar tracks in that area, near the village of DeTour.

Another set of tracks was spotted this week about 110 miles west, near Gulliver in Schoolcraft County, the department said.

It was not clear whether the same cat made both sets, said Kristie Sitar, a wildlife biologist and member of the DNR’s cougar team. Mountain lions range widely and would have no trouble covering the distance between the tracks, she said.

“It could easily be the same animal or a couple of different ones,” Sitar said.

Taken together, the evidence led the DNR to confi rm for the fourth time in recent years the presence of at least one cougar in Michigan. All have been in the U.P. The most recent find was the first in the eastern side of the peninsula, Sitar said.

People have reported numerous other sightings in the Lower Peninsula as well as the U.P., but the DNR hasn’t confirmed those. One of the latest came on Labor Day, when a man snapped a picture of what he believed was a cougar near Glen Lake in Leelanau County. A DNR official said it was probably a house cat.

The department’s long-held position is that while a handful of cougars may be in Michigan, they are former pets released into the wild or loners that have migrated from established populations in the Dakotas or farther west.

There is insufficient evidence that Michigan has its own breeding mountain lions, Sitar said, adding: “We don’t believe we have a significant cougar population.”

The cats are native to Michigan but were widely believed to have been wiped out around the beginning of the 20th century.

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, a private organization, contends the state does have an established population. The group has verified cougar evidence about three dozen times in both peninsulas, said Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs.

Rusz said the DNR is finally acknowledging a cougar presence in places where his team found tracks and droppings as far back as 2001.

“When you have evidence from the same area over a period of years, no one with any common sense can attribute that to wandering transients from South Dakota or pets,” Rusz said. “These are resident cougars. It’s beyond a slam dunk.”

The suggestion that one animal made both of the recently discovered sets of tracks is “absolutely absurd,” he said.

Sitar said the DNR has no reason to deny the existence of resident cougars - other than lack of scientific proof.

The department urges people who believe they have eviden ce to notify the nearest field office promptly, she said. In some cases, tracks and kill sites have deteriorated by the time investigators arrived.

DNR staffers determined the authenticity of the Chippewa County photo by visiting the spot where it was taken and observing camera angles and vegetation, she said. Both sets of tracks were well preserved, enabling biologists to take measurements, photos and plaster casts.