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MILESTONES IN THE HISTORY OF COUGARS
IN MICHIGAN

 

 

Pre-Settlement - Cougars were indigenous to all 83 counties of Michigan.

1830 - 1930 - Cougars and other predators were hunted and trapped by the government and citizens to accommodate the expanding human population.

1907 - The Sault St. Marie Evening News reports on a five-foot six-inch, 80 pound male cougar killed in a wolf trap near the Tahquamenon River in Chippewa County.

1914 - 1922 - N.A. Wood of the University of Michigan Museum summarizes historical accounts of cougars in both the Upper and Lower Peninsula. The Michigan Conservation Department begins to list cougars among predators vanished from the state.

1946 - 1950 - Based on cougar sighting reports since the 1930s, naturalists and reporters begin to question whether cougars are actually gone from Michigan. In his 1948 scientific paper on the wildlife of the Huron Mountains in the Upper Peninsula, R.H. Manville reports several sightings of cougars by "reliable people."

1950 - 1960 - Outdoor writers such as Frank Mainville continue to question whether the periodic cougar sightings in Northern Michigan might be authentic. Many articles about sightings of the "mystery cat" appear, especially around Sault Ste. Marie and a few other areas of the Upper Peninsula. Michigan Department of Conservation biologists quoted in newspaper articles claim the cougar is extirpated.

1966 - Francis Opolka, then a conservation officer who later became Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and another officer observe a cougar near Cornell in Delta County while on patrol. A plaster cast of the animal's track is made the next day and later verified as that of "a large cat" by University of Michigan zoologists.

1970 - A few citizens, such as Ed Klima of Crystal Falls, begin to record some of the more credible cougar sightings of Upper Peninsula residents.

1977 - David LaPointe, then Assist. Manager of the Porcupine Mountains State Park and a wildlife biologist, writes an account of cougar tracks he found in the Park in "Michigan Natural Resources Magazine," official publication of the MDNR.

1981 - MDNR Forester Mike Zuidema, after seeing a cougar in the wild in Michigan, begins compiling detailed records of cougar sightings, primarily in the Central Upper Peninsula.

1984 – Blood-covered bone fragments are recovered from a cougar reportedly shot in Menominee County.  DNR District Wildlife Biologist Dick Aartila forwards the sample to Colorado State University where it is determined by high-resolution electrophoresis to have “a positive identity to mountain lion.”  This finding is included in an official DNR “Necropsy Record” for the incident, dated April 4, 1985.

1985 - 1990 - Various outdoor reporters continue to revisit the question of whether there are wild cougars in Michigan. Most MDNR wildlife biologists quoted in articles deny the existence of the cougars. This is a time of controversy.

1987 - The cougar is listed as an endangered species in Michigan by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

1994 - The status of the cougar in Michigan is reviewed in a book edited by Dr. David C. Evers, "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of Michigan." The publication is the result of a long-term project funded by the Nongame Wildlife Fund of the Natural Heritage Program of the MDNR and was reviewed by no fewer than six active and retired MDNR wildlife officials and many other prominent mammalogists. Its highlights include these statements about cougars: "Today, several areas throughout its former range, including northern Michigan, may support small populations of cougars… There are also encouraging signs that the Michigan cougar is not transient but occurs in a self-sustaining population - based on several reliable sightings of adult cougars with kittens… The existence of the cougar in Michigan has only been recently confirmed. Whether individuals are from small, remnant populations that survived human pressures through the last two centuries, transients from the western Great Lakes Region, or privately released (or escaped) western subspecies, the cougar needs to be recognized, protected, and studied in Michigan's Upper Peninsula."

1995 - Individual MDNR biologists continue to receive information about cougars. Hair from a reported cougar collision with a car in Dickinson County is found to match that of cougar. However, the biologist who performed the microscopic examination files no report because he assumes the animal must be an escaped or released pet, then discards the hair.

1997 - The Detroit Free Press publishes a very clear photograph of a cougar in Alcona County taken by Jim Deutsch on the property of Larry Lippert. MDNR personnel discredit the photo and the photographer.

1998 - The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy (MWC) starts to investigate the many sightings and physical evidence of cougars in the Upper Peninsula at the behest of Dan Robbins, a co-founder of the organization.

1998 - Longtime wildlife biologist Lawrence Robinson emails his supervisors in the Lansing Headquarters to report his cougar sighting in Alcona County. His report started, "This is a note I absolutely dread writing. I don't know if Glen talked to you yet, but I had the terrible misfortune of seeing the Alcona County cougar… I figured I had to fess up eventually. What do I do to get the pictures and info to our division files without this getting out to the media?" Robinson ended by saying, " By the way, the location is about 10 miles "as the cougar flies" from the Lippert property where the picture was taken last summer."

1998 - Photographs of a cougar taken by James McCarthy in Schoolcraft County near Seul Choix Point receive widespread coverage from television and print media.

2001 - The MWC publishes a technical report summarizing cougar sightings, physical evidence, and related information. It concludes Michigan has a small, and likely remnant, population of cougars.

2001 - 2002 - The MWC begins to release information from field studies launched in May of 2001. The Conservancy's field crew finds physical evidence, including tracks, cougar-killed deer, and droppings (verified as cougar by DNA analysis) at multiple sites in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Two cougars are actually seen in Roscommon and Benzie Counties during the fieldwork. A cougar skull is found by a citizen in Chippewa County. The Conservancy's research is featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Most MDNR biologists quoted by the media continue to deny cougars are found in Michigan or state that any cougars actually detected must be escaped or released pets.

2002 - MDNR biologists determine that livestock were attacked by a large cat, probably a cougar, at two properties in Kalkaska County. Permits are issued to four landowners authorizing them to kill or trap a large, feral cat. Television and newspaper articles document the incidents and question the appropriateness of the agency's actions.

2003 - In response to public requests the MWC publishes a 54-page Field Guide to Detecting Cougars in the Great Lakes Region. The Conservancy, having received many requests from local police agencies, publishes a brochure entitled "Living With Cougars In Michigan." The Conservancy provides training on cougars for the statewide membership of the Michigan Association of Animal Control Officers.

November 2003 - The National Park Service (NPS) posts warning signs at all of its trailheads in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Titled "You are A Visitor In Cougar Habitat," the sign emphasizes some important do's and don'ts if one encounters a cougar. The NPS takes this action in response to a long history of sightings by its own staff and citizens, research in the Lakeshore by the MWC, and a close-encounter with a cougar by one of the Lakeshore's volunteers.

2003/04 - Traverse City Record Eagle and Bay City Times become first newspapers to take editorial positions calling for the MDNR to acknowledge the wild cougar population and research the predator so that Michigan citizens know how to be safe in the outdoors.

January 2005 - MWC releases videotape from Monroe County confirming (with absolute proof) two cougars, 5 ½ and 6 ½ feet long. Taken on April 24, 2004 by Carol Stokes, the video provides evidence suggestive of breeding by cougars. Two professional video analysts conduct split-screen size comparisons and field tests to confirm the size of the two cats.

February 2005 - The MDNR releases DNA evidence that a motorist hit a cougar in southern Menominee County. Hair taken from the car bumper by a State Trooper tests positive for cougar. The location is just 7 miles from a cougar scat picked up in 2002, and 11 miles from where blood covered bone fragments from a cougar were recovered in 1984. The MDNR states the DNA confirms just one animal, not a population, and that it was probably an escaped or released pet.

April 2005 – Just two months after the DNR press release on the cougar struck by a car in Menominee County, Doug Wagner, DNR wildlife biologist, appeared on “Ask the DNR,” on Marquette Public Television.  In responding to a viewers question asking what was the estimate of Michigan’s cougar population, Wagner responded, “ my estimate is zero.”     

September 2, 2005 – A detailed field investigation and necropsy by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy confirm independent findings by Jackson County Animal Control Officers that a cougar killed a 1,200 lb, 26-year-old horse in Parma Township.  Bite and claw marks on the horse, cougar tracks at the scene, and sighting of a large cougar less than two miles away by the Township Supervisor leave no doubt about the cause of death.  Interviews with local residents indicate previous reports of cougar sightings in the area were ignored by county and state officials.

September 22, 2005 – Following news reports of the cougar attack on the horse in Jackson County, Ray Rustem, DNR Natural Heritage Program Supervisor is quoted in the Jackson Citizen Patriot as saying: “There’s no way to track these animals; we have no expertise.  He’s on private property and we’d have to get permission from each property owner.”  This statement reflects the DNR’s admission that they have no plans to conduct meaningful field research on this endangered species.

December 2005 – A detailed field investigation and necropsy by Berrien County Animal Control Officers, a local veterinarian, and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy confirm a cougar injured a full-grown horse near Watervliet so severely it had to be euthanized.  The necropsy is conducted in full view of more than 15 newspaper and television reporters and police officers.  Distinct claw and bite marks on the horse indicate no animal but a cougar could have attacked the horse.  However, the DNR states the horse was attacked by coyotes or dogs.  

2005/06 – Jackson Citizen Patriot, South Bend Tribune, St. Joseph Herald Palladium and Dowagiac Daily News join the list of daily newspapers to take editorial positions on Michigan cougars.  The South Bend Tribune asks DNR why they are intent on making fools of Michigan citizens.   

January 2006 – Berrien County became the first unit of government in modern history to declare a public safety advisory cautioning residents to be aware that a cougar attacked a horse in the county, and is potentially dangerous.  Three Michigan legislators host a public meeting in Berrien County about cougar evidence in southwest Michigan.   

April 2006 – The American Midland Naturalist publishes a paper titled Detection and Classification of Cougars in Michigan Using Low Copy DNA Sources by Dr. Brad Swanson of Central Michigan University and Dr. Patrick Rusz of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.  The study summarizes the first peer-reviewed, scientific evidence of multiple cougars East of the Great Plains other than Florida.  The study provides DNA evidence of eight cougars in Delta, Dickinson, Houghton and Menominee counties in the Upper Peninsula, and Alcona, Emmet, Presque Isle, and Roscommon counties in the Lower Peninsula.  

June 2006 –
Battle Creek Police issue a public safety alert, after police officers report seeing cougars on separate occasions, including a mother and two cubs.  

August 10, 2006 –
The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy presents its peer-reviewed DNA evidence of cougars to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission and emphasizes that part of Section 324.36502 of the Michigan Endangered Species Act states: “The Commission shall perform those acts necessary for the conservation, protection, restoration, and propagation of endangered and threatened species of fish, wildlife and plants.”  The Conservancy expresses its belief that this language requires the Commission to conserve, restore and propagate the cougar, and that the actions of the Commission and DNR to date on cougars are contrary to the intent of voter-approved Proposal G which calls for science-based wildlife management.  

October 5, 2006 – At a meeting of the state’s Natural Resources Commission (NRC) the DNR acknowledges the peer-reviewed evidence of cougars in Michigan compiled by the MWC and Central Michigan University.  The NRC and DNR also pledge to treat citizen reports and/or complaints of cougars seriously.  DNR Director Rebecca Humphries apologizes for any disrespect shown to citizens reporting cougar information in the past.  However, the DNR does not commit to developing a management plan for the cougar as required by the Michigan Endangered Species Act.  

October 25, 2006 – In a “White Paper” entitled Hiding The Cougar: Denying The East Its Apex Predator, the MWC concludes that the state’s Natural Resources Commission (NRC) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are violating the Michigan Endangered Species Act, and charges that state officials have refused to take steps to restore the cougar despite evidence that the big cats have long been found in Michigan.  The MWC’s White Paper examines the arguments that DNR personnel have used to justify ignoring cougar evidence, and contends the agency is still not “connecting the dots” and complying with state law.  

March 2007 – DNR sends wildlife biologists to New Mexico for training in identification of cougar evidence.  

2008 – The DNR’s Wildlife Division officially forms a four-person “cougar team” to investigate possible cougar evidence.  Members of the team receive several days of special training in New Mexico.  The cougar team’s specific charges and procedures are not made public.

March 2008 - Mike Zuidema, a retired DNR forester, who has played a major role in a long-term study by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy of cougars in our state, finds a clear set of cougar tracks in snow near Bark River and the Delta-Menominee county-line.  It is the same area where scat (in 2002) and hair (in 2005) samples containing cougar DNA were found.  

He uses photos of the tracks to convince two DNR biologists, Craig Albright and Bill Rollo, to look at the actual tracks a couple of days later.  On March 13, the DNR issues a press release that states in part:  

“The photos were sent to the Wildlife Division’s trained staff on cougars and national experts.  It was agreed that the tracks are characteristic of a cougar including overall look, shape, and size.”

 Four Michigan DNR wildlife biologists have attended intensive cougar training in New Mexico over the last year and a half,” said Douglas Reeves, Wildlife Division acting chief.  “We feel confident in their abilities and are comfortable with their assessment that these large cat tracks most likely were made by a cougar.”  

June 9, 2008 – U.S. Forest Service biologist, Janet Kudell-Eckstrom, finds a cougar track while censusing Kirtland’s warblers near the base of the Stonington Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula’s Delta County.  DNR Wildlife Technician, Bill Rollo, is called in and he follows the track set for almost a quarter-mile.  After other biologists review Rollo’s photographs of the track, the DNR issues a press release stating that the tracks appear to have been made by a cougar.   

The incident marks the second time in a three-month span that the DNR confirms cougar tracks in or very near one of the study areas where the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy conducted field research in 2001-2004.

July 2008 – An ABC Investigative Team report, produced for Channel 7 in Chicago, highlights widespread suspicion that wildlife officials are intentionally misleading the public about cougars.  The five-minute story looks at cougar evidence in Michigan and Illinois and considers whether cougars, such as one killed in Chicago in summer of 2008, are coming from South Dakota as wildlife officials insist or are part of a resident, breeding Great Lakes population.  

I-Team correspondent Chuck Goudie starts the report by stating, “There are questions about whether government officials here in the Midwest are waging the great cougar cover-up by ignoring evidence and disavowing a wild cat’s existence.”  The report includes interviews with state agency biologists, a retired Michigan DNR forester who has seen cougars and their tracks in Delta County, the executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, and a township supervisor from Jackson County, Michigan who saw a cougar.  

September 18, 2008 – The operators of a Jackson County boarding farm for horses discover severe lacerations high on the back of a full-grown animal.  Dr. Robert Sray, a local veterinarian with 40 years of experience, uses about 30 stitches to close one of the wounds.  He and Dr. Patrick J. Rusz, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy’s director of wildlife programs, both express no doubt that the horse was attacked by a cougar.  The attack is not investigated by the DNR cougar team.  They cite obvious claw marks consistent with cougar in size, shape, and pattern.  Nevertheless, DNR officials (who have not visited the site) conclude on September 24, that the horse was not attacked by a cougar, but rather, “injured by something in the horse’s environment.”  “There is nothing sharp in the area where the horse was kept,” notes Dr. Sray.  “The horse was attacked by a cougar.”  

2008-2011 – The DNR’s cougar team confirms 12 more incidences in which cougar evidence, including tracks and photos are found.  The locations are in several different counties throughout the U.P.  One cougar track set is found near Seul Choix Point in Schoolcraft County where the MWC conducted its first cougar field study.  The tracks are within 100 yards of where MWC reported cougar evidence in 2001 and within three miles of the spot where James McCarthy photographed a cougar in 1998.

 

The DNR’s cougar team also does not confirm photos of cougar tracks taken near Munising in April 2010 even though DNR personnel assisted in the photo-taking and reported that the tracks appeared to be of a cougar.  The Cougar Team’s rationale is that inadequate scale is provided in the photos.

January 29, 2009 – The Michigan Senate’s Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee hears testimony that cougars are found in both Peninsulas.  Several lawmakers at the unprecedented hearing question why the Michigan DNR is in denial, despite confirmation of cougars by the agency’s own staff.  Committee Chairman, Senator Gerald Van Woerkom (Muskegon), tells the media, “I believe we have to find out why the Department of Natural Resources is in denial over this issue.  The evidence we saw in the hearing is very compelling and I believe everyone in the room agrees there are cougars in the Lower Peninsula as well as the Upper Peninsula.”  

February 8, 2009 – Bryan Hendricks posts an article in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette titled: “Arkansas sportsmen: AGFC not lying, just avoiding furball over big cats.”  He explains that having served eight years with the game and fish agencies in Missouri and Oklahoma, he was “privy to discussions about this topic that the public will never hear.  Basically, agencies like the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission ignore or deny the presence of mountain lions to avoid political and bureaucratic headaches.”  Hendricks concludes, “It’s the path of least resistance.”  

March 3-4, 2009 – A cougar is treed twice in Wisconsin’s Burnett County, about 80 miles from the Michigan border.  Wisconsin DNR biologists shoot the animal, believed to be an adult, with a tranquilizer-filled dart.  However, the dosage is too low and the cougar escapes.  In addition to photographing the cougar in the tree, the biologists collect blood, hair, and other samples.  Wisconsin DNR furbearer specialist, John Olson, later tells reporters that analysis of the photo suggests it was likely a young male, and implies its young age would support a theory that young males from Western states are moving into Wisconsin.  

September 2009 – The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy releases results of an investigation that confirms a cougar was photographed on Labor Day near the south shore of Glen Lake in Leelanau County.  The site is adjacent to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore where the National Park Service has had “cougar warning” signs at its trailheads since fall of 2003.  

Dr. Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Wildlife Conservancy, takes measurements and photos of objects of known size at the site on September 9 accompanied by a National Park Service employee, and another witness.  Dr. Rusz then analyzes the photos of Dr. Jerome Wiater in consultation with forensic photography experts and concludes that the animal had the profile and coloration of a cougar and was too large to be a house cat.  Specifically, he finds that the cat was likely more than 30 inches long from nose to end of body.  The DNR issues no formal findings about the photos, but a DNR conservation officer tells news reporters the animal was a housecat.  

November 4, 2009 – The Michigan DNR announces it had verified in fall of 2009 two sets of cougar tracks—near Detour in Chippewa County and near Gulliver in Schoolcraft County—and confirmed the location of a cougar photo in Bruce Township in Chippewa County.  In the same press release, the DNR mentions for the first time a cougar track verification in September 2008 on Huron Mountain Club property in northern Marquette County.  The Gulliver track was in an area where the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy found evidence of one or more cougars in 2001-2004.  The Conservancy had also reported in 2001-2004 on compelling cougar evidence in the same areas of Chippewa and Marquette Counties.  This would logically point to the presence of resident cougars in Michigan; however, the DNR continues to insist the animals must be non-breeding, transient cougars wandering in from South Dakota.   

June 21, 2010 – The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) issues a press release announcing that DNRE wildlife biologists confirmed a trail camera photo of a cougar in Menominee County.  The DNRE calls it the first photo evidence of a cougar in that county.  However, other cougar evidence was confirmed in Menominee County by forensic/DNA evidence in 1984 and 2004.  The DNRE continues to imply the animals must be transients from South Dakota.

2011 – The DNR releases trail camera photos, taken in Ontonogan, Houghton and Baraga Counties, of a cougar with a working radio collar.  However, the origins of the cougar and collar are not determined.

 

2012 – The DNR confirms the authenticity of photos of three more cougars, in Baraga and Marquette Counties.  One of the photos was taken on June 1 in southern Marquette County and was first released by the MWC.  The other Marquette County photo was taken on July 18 at a site about 50 miles to the north.  Despite 17 cougar verifications in the four years since its cougar team was formed, the DNR continues to claim it had no evidence of a population.  A DNR spokesperson says the cougars verified are all wandering males from Western states.  The DNR claims it has never verified any evidence of a cougar in the Lower Peninsula.