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Lawmakers Look At Cougar Evidence

On January 29, 2009, the Michigan Senate's Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee conducted an unprecedented hearing on the presence and legal status of cougars (mountain lions) in Michigan. Chaired by Senator Gerald Van Woerkom (34th District, Muskegon Area), the Committee received testimony from eight individuals and reviewed various reports.

Testifying were:

Dr. Patrick Rusz, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy's Director of Wildlife Programs, who provided a summary of cougar evidence compiled by MWC in the past 11 years.

Wendy Chamberlain, Supervisor of Parma Township in Jackson County, who reported on her own cougar sightings and investigation of a horse killed by a cougar in her township.

Dr. Robert Sray, a Jackson County veterinarian with over 40 years of experience who treated a horse he determined was attacked by a cougar.

Dave Townshend, a retired Michigan State Police lieutenant and expert on video/photographic evidence, who verified the authenticity of photo documentation of cougars in the Lower Peninsula.

Robert Van Den Berg, a Lapeer County farmer who reported sightings of cougars on his land and surrounding area.

Mike Zuidema, a retired DNR Forester, who saw a cougar in 1981 and subsequently compiled evidence of the species in the Upper Peninsula for nearly 30 years.

Dennis Fijalkowski, Executive Director of the MWC, a former chairperson of Michigan's Endangered Species Committee who presented recommendations for managing the couar in Michigan as an endangered species..

David Haywood, a Lansing attorney and President of the MWC, who reviewed laws pertaining to the protection and management of the cougar in Michigan.

Following the Committee hearing Senator Van Woerkom stated, "Cougars are a possible threat to human beings and livestock in the state of Michigan. I believe we have to find out why the Department of Natural Resources is in denial over this issue. The evidence that we saw in the hearing is very compelling and I believe everyone in the room would agree that there are cougars in the Lower Peninsula as well as the Upper Peninsula. I want the people of Michigan to be safe."

The Committee heard testimony that indicated distinct areas of both peninsulas have long histories-30 years or more-of cougar sighting reports along with some corroborating physical evidence. Contrary to assertions by the DNR, the testimony indicated much of this evidence is not suspect, inconclusive, or otherwise shaky. It is good, hard evidence. For example, in the Lower Peninsula's Alcona County, a very clear and close-up photo of a cougar lying in ferns and grass was taken in summer of 1997. It was reviewed by numerous wildlife biologists who admitted it was taken in Michigan. The photo was published in the September 13, 1997 front page of the Detroit Free Press, and hung on a DNR office wall for several years. Four years earlier, a photo of a cougar standing by a tree along a stream had been taken about 5 miles to the west across the Oscoda County line.

In 1998, DNR wildlife biologist Larry Robinson reported seeing a cougar about 10 miles to the south of the 1993 and 1997 photo sites. He photographed its tracks and sent a memo to his supervisors in which he told of the sighting and asked how to get the information into Wildlife Division files without the media finding out. That same year, another DNR wildlife biologist reported cougar tracks within 12 miles of where the 1997 photo was taken. But he was told by other DNR officials that the cougar must be an escaped or released pet and that his finding was therefore of no significance.

In 2001, in the same general area, the Wildlife Conservancy found cougar tracks and scat verified as that of cougar by DNA analyses by Central Michigan University. Thus, there was documentation within an area of a size fairly typical of a cougar home range (200 square miles), and the continued presence of at least one cougar or (alternatively) multiple cougars, over a 7-year period. The DNR nevertheless continues to tell the public they have no evidence of cougars in the Lower Peninsula.

From 2001-2003, the Wildlife Conservancy found cougar DNA in scats from 8 widely separated areas-4 in the Upper Peninsula, and 4 in the Lower Peninsula. The evidence was peer-reviewed and published in the American Midland Naturalist in 2006.

One of those scats came from an area near the Menominee-Delta Count line where considerable other evidence of cougars has been found. In 1966, a plaster cast of a track was made after a cougar was seen by two conservation officers. One of the officers-Frank Opolka-later became Deputy Director of the DNR. The track was verified as that of a large cat by University of Michigan Museum staff. In 1984, bone was recovered from an animal wounded by a hunter-it was verified as cougar by the Veterinary Lab at Colorado State University. In 2005, the DNR issued a press release that verified cougar DNA in hair taken from the car bumper of a motorist who claimed she hit a large cat. All this evidence was from the same area.

The cougar was placed on the state list of endangered species in 1987. This was a direct result of the steady compilation of cougar evidence over the years, especially in the central Upper Peninsula. A book "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of Michigan," edited by David Evers, was published in several editions between 1992 and 1997 as the culmination of a long-term project of the Michigan Natural Heritage Program of the DNR. The sections on mammals were reviewed by several prominent DNR wildlife biologists as well as additional naturalists. The section on cougars states: "Éseveral areas throughout its former range, including northern Michigan, may support small populations of cougarsÉ There also are 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 kittensÉ 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."

In the 15 years since the book was published with DNR funds, and in the 22 years since the DNR placed the cougar on the endangered species list, the agency has neither recognized, nor properly protected, nor studied the cougar anywhere in Michigan. This inaction is particularly hard to explain since in the past 10 months, the DNR has confirmed two sets of cougars tracks found in or near two of the study areas where the Conservancy found scat with cougar DNA more than five years earlier. This disconnect between the evidence and DNR policy and continued cougar sighting reports from citizens, is what prompted the January 29 Senate Committee hearing.