Cougars still prowl in Michigan: DNA proves at least 20 are roaming
Cougars still prowl in Michigan
DNA proves at least 20 are roaming, most in UP
November 1, 2001
BY ERIC SHARP
FREE PRESS OUTDOORS WRITER
New DNA evidence offers irrefutable proof that cougars roam the woods of the
Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, the Michigan Wildlife Habitat
Cougars, also known as mountain lions, were supposed to have been killed off
95 years ago in Michigan. Sightings have been reported since then, but no
scientific corroboration had been made.
Now it has, said Dr. Patrick Rusz, the habitat foundation's director of
wildlife programs. Field studies were conducted last spring and summer, and
DNA analysis by the Wyoming Game and Fish laboratory confirmed that feces
was found from seven cougars, Rusz said. Five were in the UP, two in the
northern Lower Peninsula.
Rusz suspects that the UP is home to 20-30 of the big cats, which can reach
200 pounds or more.
In addition to DNA evidence, experts confirmed that plaster casts of paw
prints found in the UP and near Mesick and Tower in the Lower Peninsula are
In eight days of searching areas where cougar sightings had been reported,
Rusz's team also came across the carcasses of several deer that were killed
and eaten in a method characteristic only of cougars.
"The sand dunes and beaches along the Lake Michigan shoreline turned out to
be a gigantic natural litter box" where it was unexpectedly easy to find
cougar droppings, Rusz said.
The animals are not escaped pets or transients but an established breeding
population, he said. Rusz said he thinks more detailed DNA research will
document the genetic relationships and even the sex of the animals that left
the feces, commonly called scat.
"These cougars are a remnant population," Rusz said. "Wildlife doesn't work
like Noah's ark, at least not for big carnivores. They can't breed like
rabbits after their numbers are knocked down. The Michigan cougar population
is an example of what happens as a result of generations of in-breeding."
Although the state Department of Natural Resources traditionally has said
the last Michigan cougar was killed in Chippewa County in 1906, the agency
continued to get reports of cougar sightings. Many were from its own
forestry workers and conservation officers.
Rusz said the DNR often treated the reports "as if they were sightings of
Bigfoot or alien spaceships. They brushed them off as being escaped pets, or
other cats like bobcats and lynx, and it made people reluctant to come
Ray Rustem, supervisor of the DNR's natural heritage program, said the
department has "never denied that there are cougars in the state. What we've
said is that we don't know if there are, and the question is, what is the
source? Minnesota now says it has a cougar population. We know that some of
these animals, especially young ones, will travel long distances."
Dennis Fijalkowski, director of the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation,
said from his Bath headquarters that Rusz's study should end arguments about
whether cougars live in Michigan.
"These cats certainly exist," Fijalkowski said. "We proved the sightings
weren't bobcat or lynx. The evidence is fairly easy to find if you know what
you're looking for.
"We think that cougars were never really wiped out in Michigan."
Rusz cites this evidence for a permanent cougar population: "Only resident
cats go to the same place over and over. Transients just pass through, and
you don't get that many sightings."
Backed by a grant from Whitetails Unlimited of Traverse City, Rusz made his
research trips along with two Central Michigan University students -- his
son, Mark, and Keith Kidder.
The scat, paw prints and deer carcasses were found in the UP along the Lake
Michigan shoreline near Seul Choix Point on the Stonington Peninsula in
Dickinson County, and in Houghton County north of Baraga, where Michigan
Technological University student Nancy Gagnon collected droppings and saw a
In the Lower Peninsula, Rusz photographed a huge cougar track near Tower in
Cheboygan County, and confirmed that a big cat videotaped near Mesick in
Wexford County was a cougar.
"The Tower track was very clear," Rusz said. "It was 4 1/2 inches across,
and Harley Shaw verified it was a cougar and told us that was about as big a
track as you'll find."
Shaw is a retired cougar expert for the Arizona Fish and Game Department.
His findings were confirmed by Dr. John Stuht, a retired furbearer
specialist from the Michigan DNR.
Cougars, also known as pumas and panthers, are the second-largest of North
America's wild cats. The biggest killed by a hunter was about 300 pounds,
but the average adult male is 120-180 pounds, and females are 80-130. The
biggest North American cat is the jaguar, which averages 2O0 pounds and
occasionally is seen in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Cougars are among the most controversial American wildlife because they eat
farm animals and dogs and occasionally attack humans. Usually secretive,
cougars have killed seven people in the Western United States and Canada in
the last 10 years. Most were children and small women.
Rusz said a cougar is thought to have killed and carried off a horse foal at
a ranch in Cheboygan County. He said several UP residents told credible
stories of being followed by cougars that apparently were merely curious
about people. One UP man saw a cougar kill his dog, and another couple
chased off a cougar that was stalking their dog.
"We found the cougars living in the most remote places, where they aren't
likely to be seen by people, never mind attack a human," Fijalkowski said.
Rusz said it was clear that the Seul Choix cougars were using the remote
beaches as a killing ground, hiding in the vegetation on top of the dunes
and watching for deer that come down to Lake Michigan to drink.
"The cats would pounce on the deer as they came back up the dunes," Rusz
said. "After they were hit by the cat, none of the deer we found went more
than 10 feet. They were dropped in their tracks."
Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or esharp@....