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(From the January-February 2004 issue of The Wildlife Volunteer)

Michigan's cougar controversy took a dramatic turn this fall. The National Park Service erected signs at trailheads at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Benzie and Leelanau Counties, advising users about cougars there. This was the first time a government agency has acknowledged the presence of cougars in Michigan.

The Wildlife Conservancy conducted cougar research in the Lakeshore in 2002 and 2003 under a permit from the Park Service. Dr. Patrick Rusz, Director of Wildlife Programs at the Wildlife Conservancy delivered a paper summarizing initial findings at a Park Service conference in Wisconsin. The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has documented cougar tracks, droppings, and cougar-killed deer in the Lakeshore over the past three years, and a Conservancy worker saw a cougar during investigations in the Park.

Stating "You Are A Visitor In Cougar Habitat," the new signs emphasize some important do's and don'ts if one encounters a cougar. The Park Service took this action after a well-respected volunteer had a close encounter with a cougar.

Veteran outdoor writer, Eric Sharp, wrote of the close encounter in the November 20, 2003 issue of the Detroit Free Press, noting (as excerpted here):

"The Park Service was prompted to erect the signs by the fascinating and somewhat-frightening experience of Sleeping Bear Dunes volunteer Eleanor Comings, who for 20 nervous minutes was closely shadowed on a remote trail by a big cougar.

"It was September 28, and Comings, who lives in nearby Frankfort, was walking a hilly section of Old Indian Trail when she heard what sounded like chirps from a bird she couldn't identify. The sounds moved with her, and she stopped and looked back into the woods for the bird, not realizing that cougars make noises often described as chirps or tweets.

"When she didn't see it, she turned around to resume her walk, and crossing the trail two to three feet ahead was a cougar she estimated at seven to nine feet long, including a four-foot tail as thick as a man's wrist.

"'If I hadn't stopped, I would have tripped over it,' Comings said, 'It went to the other side of the trail and stood there looking at me' from about five feet away.

"'For a few minutes, I just froze. I couldn't believe what was happening.' Comings radioed park headquarters.

"'They sent people to meet me, but I knew it would take about 30 minutes for them to get there,' she said. 'So I started to walk slowly. It stayed just off the trail and walked alongside, keeping a distance of about three to five feet from me. It obviously was interested, but it didn't seem aggressive. The squirrels went crazy. I have never heard them scolding like that.' The cat walked alongside for about 20 minutes before disappearing into the woods, she said.

"'We have a lot of deer here at Sleeping Bear, and this guy looked very well fed,' Comings said. 'It had a dark mark at the end of its tail and few spots on the body near the base of its tail. It was beautiful, so long and muscular…When it moved across in front of me, I thought its body would never end.'"

"Steve Yancho, Sleeping Bear's chief of natural resources, said visitors have reported cougar sightings for years, but park officials were skeptical. The state Department of Natural Resources has insisted that wild cougar don't live in Michigan.

"'We'd have people tell us that bears were marauding a campsite, and when we'd send someone down there they'd find raccoons, so we tended to be skeptical about reports from people who don't know much about wildlife,' Yancho said. 'But the cougar sightings kept getting more credible. We even had biologists who were doing work for us report they'd seen cougars. That was pretty hard to ignore.'

"Coming's experience convinced park officials that 'there definitely was something out there,' Yancho said, and signs were erected at trailheads and visitor centers 'to raise the awareness of people who visit the park….'"

Coming's encounter occurred in part of the Lakeshore where the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has periodically found cougar tracks and other signs during the past three years. Wildlife Conservancy staff first informed the Park Service of the presence of a cougar in that area in 2001, and the Park Service acknowledged its own personnel and numerous citizens had seen cougars in and around the Lakeshore.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle addressed the new trail signs in a November 19 editorial:

"The animals were thought to have been hunted out of existence in the area in the early 1900s. Officially - at least in the eyes of the state Department of Natural Resources - cougars may or may not live in the area. Department officials don't flatly deny the cat's existence in Michigan, but they want more proof.

"We've been unable to even come close to substantiating a viable resident cougar population,' department spokesman Brad Wurfel said. 'What we're missing here is a cougar.'

"Though the state may have its reasons for not acknowledging the big cats, the sightings were enough for the federal government to recently post signs at each of Sleeping Bear Dunes' 13 trailheads, warning visitors that they're entering cougar habitat.

"Granted, the feds have nothing to lose by posting such signs. If cougars are determined to exist, it would be up the DNR to come up with a wildlife management plan for the cats, likely similar to the state's monitoring of moose and wolves in Isle Royale National Park.

"The conflicting messages from the feds and the state are, however contributing to the public's confusion about cougars and whether extra caution should be taken when entering the park, or even one's back yard.

"People have a right to know if they're going to come face-to-face with a 7-foot long 80-pound, potentially dangerous wild animal and they should be informed about what to do if it happens.

"A public that is used to dealing with (at most) deer and rabbits when going for a hike should know if there's a chance they'll be running into a predator like a cougar. Big cats may be beautiful and graceful, but just ask Ray Horn (of Siegfried and Roy) if they're predictable. No one knows how a wild animal, particularly a predator, is going to react.

"That's why the state and federal government need to determine if cougars do exist in this part of the state, including Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

"There's an opportunity here to work together to interview witnesses, check for signs, send out patrols and get to the bottom of this. There's a safety issue here - both for people and the alleged cougars - and that should trump any misgivings a governmental body has about acknowledging an animal's existence.

"We're not looking for Bigfoot here. Just a big cat or two."

It is indeed important to resolve the cougar controversy in northern Michigan. Our state's citizens should not learn about cougars only from news articles about confusing debates, cats stalking humans or livestock being attacked. They need solid information about the cougar's endangered status, biology, and behavior. But they aren't getting it because Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials have chosen to argue whether the cougars roaming Michigan constitute a "truly wild population." The agency clings to the notion that the big predators "must be escaped or released pets," and the public gets mixed messages.

The Genetics Lab at Central Michigan University has provided the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy with convincing evidence (DNA from droppings) of cougars in at least seven counties. Some of the animals are in remote areas and the Conservancy is trying to answer questions about the cougar population to better determine the cougar's biological importance and need for protection. But in an area with intensive public use, like Sleeping Bear Dunes, no one should really care about the origin of the cougars. The only thing we need to know is that they are there, and that citizens can reduce risk by taking certain precautions. The federal agency charged with managing the unique natural area knows the cougars are there. As the Park Service has concluded, it's time for acknowledgement of the animal's presence and some badly-needed public education. After all, it's a matter of public safety.

Michigan Cougar

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