Larry Lyons: Another local cougar sightingPublished 10:23pm Tuesday, September 7, 2010
In recent years cougar sighting reports are commonplace throughout the state but almost none have supporting physical evidence. That’s why I got excited when he said it had left tracks in the sand. I grabbed my camera and went to check it out.
While a game warden in Washington State I’d seen lots of cougar tracks and, though these were in loose sand and not perfect, they passed the initial sniff test. They spanned almost four inches, the pad depressions were correct and there were no toenail marks, eliminating the possibility of it being a large dog. He also said several neighbors had been talking about seeing a cougar off and on for months.
The last known Michigan cougar was killed in the Upper Peninsula over a century ago. Despite hundreds or even thousands of sighting reports, ever since the Michigan DNR (now DNRE) adamantly, no…vehemently, denied any possibility of a wild cougar in Michigan. Over the years of doing this column I’ve received many credible reader accounts of cougar sightings here in the Lower Peninsula. Yet, whenever I tried to discuss the possibility with DNR or USFWS biologists I was rudely scoffed at. A column I did some years ago suggesting the possibility of roaming young cougars from the west venturing into Michigan brought ridicule and even anger from some of them.
Over the years most of the evidence presented to the DNR such as photos and fur, blood and scat samples has turned out to be annoying hoaxes or imaginations run amok. However, amongst them were a few accounts with undeniable credibility. These were typically dismissed by assuming they were either escaped captive reared animals or by simply ignoring the reports. The DNR openly reasoned if any cougars were present there would be verifiable photographs, occasional road kills, prey kill stashes discovered and hound hunters would now and then tree one.
During my years as a game warden afield virtually every day in the heart of prime cougar country I never saw a single cougar on the hoof, much less photographed one. I never found a kill stash and never heard of a road kill other than on the Los Angeles freeways. While western hounds are trained to hunt cougar I speculate most eastern hounds have no clue what cougar scent is or that it might represent something to pursue. True, several cougar occurrences including one near Niles a few years ago have proven to be captive reared animals but you could turn every captive cougar in the country loose in Michigan and not have enough to account for all the potentially credible sightings.
Recently public pressure has caused the DNRE to change its deeply entrenched stance, at least on the surface. They now have a four-person team trained to investigate cougar reports. According to Internet sources one of the team members from the U.P. admitted, “We do have some individuals that seem to be filtering into the state, probably from the Dakotas, probably young males.” The DNRE website now states, “There is no doubt that cougars are occasional visitors to Michigan.”
Recently the team cautiously declared five different sets of tracks found across the U.P. as being, “consistent with a mountain lion.” The strongest evidence came last year when a motion triggered camera in Chippewa County in the U.P. snapped an unmistakable cougar photo. Background comparison verifies the location.
Even after chewing on crow in the U.P. it’s apparently still difficult for the DNRE to wean themselves off from their century long position, though. Despite admittedly numerous reports from the Lower Peninsula, they are adamant that cougars are strictly a rare Upper Peninsula phenomenon. I immediately reported my cousin’s sighting and track photos directly to the DNRE’s Southern Michigan Cougar Investigator both by e-mail and phone voice message. He was apparently too busy to bother with ghosts, though, for there was no response.
If you should encounter a cougar, delete thoughts of presenting the DNRE with a corpus delicti. Cougars are officially state endangered and the consequences of embarrassing the DNRE would surely be severe.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.