Tracking Cougars in the U.P.: Michigan DNR shares confirmed sightings

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UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. (WJMN) – The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released trail camera photos and other pictures as evidence of cougar sightings in the Upper Peninsula from 2020. The sightings ranged from the Western to the Eastern part of the region across six counties.

“We’ve received numerous cougar or mountain lion reports from folks across Michigan,” said John Pepin, Deputy Public Information Officer for the DNR. “When we get them, we go out and investigate them and try to substantiate the reports.”

Cougar tracks in the snow
On February 19, 2020, DNR staff identified cougar tracks in Delta County while conducting wolf track surveys. This is about 40 miles from where tracks were found in Schoolcraft County on February 20, 2020.

They can do that by checking tracks, testing fur, or by monitoring trail cameras. It’s part of the DNR’s effort to monitor cougar populations in the Upper Peninsula and elsewhere in the state should sightings occur.

“Most of our sightings of cougars which we’ve been able to confirm, which is about 40 different sightings, have been with only one exception, in the U.P.,” added Pepin.

Trail camera photo of a cougar
On June 6, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in eastern Chippewa County. This is about 18 miles from where the June 1 photo was captured in Mackinac County.

He clarified that doesn’t mean there are 40 animals but it is 40 different reports the DNR has been able to confirm. They are fairly certain some of the reports are the same animal, moving from place to place.

“Most of the reports I’ve seen have been in the Western Upper Peninsula,” Pepin continued. “That stands to reason because so far we haven’t found any evidence cougars are breeding in the Upper Peninsula, so there’s no established population here. What we’re seeing is sort of a migratory population where a family of cougars is established in one area. When the young are born, they sort of spread out from beyond that area. So they’ve done some DNA testing and the cougars that are coming to the U.P. are coming from the West of us, the Minnesota, the Dakotas, that Kind of thing.”

Cougar image from a trail camera
On July 13, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in Ontonagon County. This is about 120 miles from where the July 12 photo was captured in Delta County.

Pepin says the reports help them understand behavior as well. Because cougars are not an established game species in Michigan and they don’t have an established population, Pepin says it would not be legal to just shoot one.

“Our general advice for any big game is to try and keep your distance as best you can, but if you were to come across one close up on the trail, the advice we give is to slowly back away.”

Cougar tracks in the snow
On February 20, 2020, DNR staff identified cougar tracks in southeastern Schoolcraft County while conducting wolf track surveys. This is about 12 miles from the Schoolcraft County trail camera photo taken on November 15, 2019.

One of the things the DNR is trying to find out is are cougars going to establish themselves here.

“We did have some data a couple of years ago where the DNR has all kinds of animal studies going on out in the woods with game cameras. We have literally shot millions of images and not come up with a cougar on any of the game cameras. That gives you an idea of how rare they are.”

Cougar image from a trail camera
On August 30, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in southcentral Luce County. This is about 1 mile from where another photo was captured on August 30 in Luce County. 
Trail camera photo of a cougar
On April 24, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in Delta County, on the Stonington Peninsula. This is about 45 miles from where DNR staff found tracks on February 20th in Schoolcraft County. 

On May 17, 2020, a DNR trail camera captured a photo of a cougar in southcentral Luce County. This is about 72 miles from where the April 24 photo was captured in Delta County (Photo not available)

Trail camera photo of a cougar
On June 1, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in eastern Mackinac County. This is about 127 miles from where the April 24 photo was captured in Delta County. 
Cougar image from a trail camera
On July 12, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in Delta County. This is about 165 miles from where the June 6 photo was captured in Chippewa County. 
Cougar image from a trail camera
On August 30, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in southcentral Luce County. This is about 180 miles from where the July 17 photo was captured in Ontonagon County.
Cougar image from a trail camera
On October 13, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in northern Mackinac County. This is about 5 miles from where another photo was captured on October 13 in Mackinac County. 
Cougar image from a trail camera
On October 13, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in western Mackinac County. This is about 10 miles from where August 30 photos were captured in Luce County. 

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