Cougars in Berrien disputed

Published 4:39 pm Tuesday, January 24, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily News
BERRIEN SPRINGS - Testimony from more than 20 people Monday afternoon straddled both sides of the “burning question” of whether or not wild cougars inhabit Michigan or whether they're a few former illegal “pets.”
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took its lumps in a Michigan Nature Conservancy statement, as well as from Berrien County residents, who don't feel their sightings are taken seriously by state bureaucrats.
For every 1,000 cougar sightings, perhaps 6 to 8 percent “turn out to be the real deal,” Bostick said.
Absent are confirmed carcasses or hunters treeing animals. “Physical evidence right now does not say for sure they're here. As scientists and wildlife biologists, we try to focus on physical evidence. That doesn't necessarily mean that cougars aren't here.
Nationwide, cougars are responsible for 20 deaths since 1900, Bostick said. Yet “domestic dogs are responsible for 20 deaths every year.”
Cougars are similar to bears when it comes to human safety, Bostick said. “Both are predators - at least some of the time. They tend to chase things which run from them. It's pretty tough to expect children to face an animal twice their size and not run away, but running away is the absolute worst thing you can do.
Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said if anyone thinks they spotted a cougar and public safety demands urgent attention, they can call 911, which will in turn alert Valarie Grimes' animal control office or state conservation officers.
From the DNR's standpoint, many reports trickle in weeks after something takes place. “The principle's the same as investigating a crime scene,” Bostick explained. “The sooner we get on the scene, the better job we can do interpreting the evidence. The public can help us do our job better by giving us more timely and more detailed information.”
Cougars range over an area as vast as four counties, making them a very difficult study subject. They're intelligent, secretive and forage after dark.
It's not realistic to expect the DNR to “roam the woods looking for the animal they saw.” Physical evidence is better, whether hair, up-close photographs or tracks, which should be covered with a bucket to preserve.
Fetherston recalled the man in his jurisdiction who got two cougars as cubs and raised them for three to four years confined in a pole barn.
Sgt. Robert VerBerkmoes of Dowagiac said, “It's been our experience that everything we've encountered is illegally possessed and gets loose. Potentially, cougars could exist around here in random fashion. I don't disbelieve the numerous sightings, but based on the officers I supervise and personal experience, of all the tracks that were looked at that people thought were cougar tracks were dog tracks.”
Grimes, former Cass County animal control director and a 26-year veteran, commented, “I've investigated a lot of attacks” before the Watervliet horse mauled in November. “I've never seen anything quite as brutal as this. From the neck up, it completely ripped and destroyed the face right off this horse” beyond the capability of a coyote or dog.
Grimes was called Sunday to Warren Dunes State Park, near Bridgman, for what she is convinced, after interviewing the couple who reported seeing a cougar and viewing tracks, is a confirmed sighting.
“I don't to alarm the public, that's not our point at all, but I do believe that people need to be educated,” she said.
Baroda veterinarian Dr. Mark Johnson, who examined the injured horse on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005, told state Reps. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, Neal Nitz, R-Baroda, and Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, it suffered “some of the most extensive wounds I've ever seen on a horse. In my experience, it's unusual for an animal to even attack a horse. This particular horse had extensive wounds about the head and face such that I determined pretty quickly that it needed to be euthanized. This horse pretty much had no skin or muscle on the left side of its head.”
Several Berrien residents, including from the Niles area, described sighting big cats. The Rev. Russell Panico of Three Oaks gave the most vivid account of a “black panther” in the daytime last April and, two nights later, a “blood-curdling” cry among herds of 40 to 50 raccoons his wife of 47 years has been feeding for 23 years on their property 100 yards from the Galien River bottom. The raccoons vanished.