Column: Cougar rumor mill hits high gear
Published 9:13 pm Monday, December 19, 2005
Wow! The cougar rumor mill is spinning so fast now it's about to strip its gears. My column several weeks ago exploring the possibilities of cougars in Michigan evoked a variety of responses from around the state. As if on cue, just days afterwards a horse was mauled by some creature(s) in northern Berrien County and the rumor flared that it was the deed of a cougar. As rumors are wont to do, truths, speculation and untruths melded together and took wing, causing near hysteria to sweep the area. Now readers are goading me to weigh in on this. Even though better sense is banging me sharply on the head to stay out of it, my own curiosity compelled me to take a peek.
I first heard of the incident from a brief news report on TV. The footage showed severe mauling of the horse's face and head area. While a game warden in the Pacific Northwest I encountered a number of cougar kills of both livestock and large wild prey and this damage about the head was not consistent with any cougar kills I had seen or heard of. There were some other things that didn't fit the norm, as well. I passed it off as probably a dog, or pack thereof, harassing perhaps an already debilitated horse. I talked to several DNR biologists that were familiar with the incident and from the investigation report and photos they, too, were certain it was the work of coyotes or dogs.
As you've surely read or seen by now, last Friday the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, which has taken up the mission to investigate cougar sightings in Michigan, exhumed the horse for a necropsy. Their official went public over the weekend declaring it a definite cougar attack. Obviously, that has cranked the rumor mill into supercharged overdrive. I won't get into the details, but rather just say the Wildlife Conservancy officials and DNR biologists viewed pretty much the same evidence and came up with differing conclusions. Which side you throw in with is up to you.
This brings us around to one of the more prevalent notions being tossed about, that the DNR is covering up the existence of cougars in Michigan. To that thought I must ask, why? As one DNR biologist told me, “When wolves showed up in Michigan we undertook protection and management of them. We protect and manage dozens of rare and endangered species. That's our job. Why would we not want the public to know if Michigan had a cougar population. Cougar are already protected by State law. What more would we do beyond that?”
In fact, the DNR spends much time and resources investigating cougar sighting reports. Steve Chadwick, head biologist at the Crane Pond State Game Area in Cass County told me he's spent many days in his two year tenure there responding to cougar reports throughout this area. “I just can't find a single piece of tangible evidence,” he says.
I doubt we'll ever know for sure the source of this horse's grief. However, before you join in the hysteria know that there is not a cougar behind every bush. As stated in the previous column, yes, there have been confirmed cougars in Michigan, but all have been deemed escapees from captivity. There is also evidence that suggests the possibility of the odd free roaming cougar with its origins open to speculation. Whatever the scenario may be, it's an extremely rare event. For nearly 10 years now annual predator fur bearer surveys have been conducted in the Upper Peninsula where researchers drive about in prime habitat identifying tracks in the snow. In 10 years and over a thousand miles of diligent searching not one cougar track has been found. Similarly down here in the Lower. Cougars are not especially nocturnal, they prowl around the clock with prime time being dawn and dusk. With all the farmers, hunters, snowmobilers, cross country skiers, bird watchers and just plain gawkers prowling the countryside, if there were a significant number of cougars it would be common knowledge instead of a fleeting ghost. Carpe diem.