MICHIGAN (WJMN) – Cougars were originally native to Michigan and at one point were legal to hunt, but now they are listed as endangered.
Occasionally there are cougar sightings in Michigan, in 2008 the Michigan Department of Resources formed a team to confirm and monitor sightings of cougars in the state according to Cody Norton, MDNR large carnivore specialist.
“Cougars are native in the state of Michigan our last legally harvested cougar was back in 1906 near Newberry after that it was pretty quiet in the state but in the late 90s, early 2000s we started having more you know some reports come up that look like ‘hey this might be consistent with cougar’ either signs or photographs but the department didn’t have a protocol in place for how to investigate those or determine whether they were real or not and we didn’t necessarily have people with the expertise to do it so in 2008 the department formed a cougar team,” said Norton.
Brian Roell, MDNR wildlife biologist, says biologists on the team are spread throughout the state because sightings are reported from all over.
“What we do is, we look independently at the evidence presented to us and basically decide whether that is a cougar or not,” said Roell. “Some of the pictures are very obvious where you’re like ‘ok that’s a cougar that’s great,’ those are the easy ones but surprisingly we get a lot of fuzzy pictures too that maybe aren’t as clear and we get a lot of other animals as well that are thought to be cougars from bobcats to dogs to domestic cats it’s kind of all over the board.”
All confirmed cougar sightings in the U.P. have been young males so far. Biologists say they have not seen any signs of breeding.
“I think what’s really interesting is you know we don’t believe we have a cougar population here, we have no record of any females and no record of any reproduction but one of the things that’s kind of interesting and cool about cougars showing up here in Michigan is they’re likely from the South Dakota population of cougars which is the closest population of cougars to Michigan,” said Kristie Sitar, MDNR wildlife biologist. “So they’re likely from South Dakota and they’re coming through here it tends to be males all the instances when we’ve either had a cougar in hand from an illegal harvest or been able to tell from the photograph or the video the sex of the animal, they’ve always been males.”
Shelby Adams, MDNR wildlife biologist, says that all but one of the sightings have been in the Upper Peninsula. The only confirmed cougar sighting in the Lower Peninsula was in the Southern region.
“There’s a lot of interest in the Northern Lower in particular about especially during the winter if we get ice across the water and cougars were able to sort of walk across that ice bridge as it would be called and if they were to sort of enter the Northern lower we’d want to know if they’re present or not,” said Adams. “So we’re very interested in the potential being in that area, there’s people that report that they see them but so far we have not had any evidence that there have been any cougars in the Northern Lower at this time.”
To confirm sightings there has to be verifiable evidence for DNR staff to check, that can be either pictures, tracks or scat.
“In order to confirm something we do have to have that verifiable evidence and that’s just because we need it to be able to stand up and hold up some weight of what we’re saying is present or not so you know we are scientists we are going to always be looking, if we’re saying somethings there, we want to know that we have proof that it’s there,” said Adams. “And what we’ve seen from the U.P. is an excellent example, when cougars are somewhere there is evidence.”
An increase in the use of trail cameras and smartphones in recent years has helped make confirming sightings easier.
“If you look back closer to 2008 when the team was formed a lot of our sign that we were going off of or investigating were tracks you know somebody might find a track in the middle of the woods, we might ask them to put a 5-gallon bucket upside down over it so it doesn’t get rained on or swept by the wind or melted out if it’s in the snow,” said Norton. “And then, somebody had to try to go and get a glimpse of that track before it disappeared.”
Roell says the sightings they confirm also go into a database for other researchers to look at.
“We’re looking at the locations where cougars are popping up and we’re using that data to look at occupancy and to look at habitat analysis to see where in the U.P. is suitable for a cougar to live,” said Roell.
Most recently, researchers from the State University of New York, Campfire Program in Wildlife Conservation used some of the data to look at cougar movement in the Great Lakes Region overall. Jerrold Belant, professor at the State University of New York in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says they only use sightings that are confirmed by state resource agencies, like the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
“From the period of 2010 until 2020 overall combined across the three-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan 180 sightings were used in the analysis,” said Belant.
Mariela Gantchoff, post-doctoral research associate at the State University of New York in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says 40 of the sightings were from the Upper Peninsula.
“What we’re doing is basically trying to identify what sort of areas are cougars occurring, what areas are they being sighted,” said Gantchoff. “And to do that we look at, is it a natural area? Is it an urban area? Is there elevation? Is it a flat area? Is it a rugged area? How far is it close or far from water? And so far what we’re seeing is that they are occurring more in natural areas so forests, shrublands, grasslands and in areas that are very rugged. So they seem to prefer not flat areas but areas with some sort of slope and they also like areas that have a lot of vegetation growth and productivity and likely prey even though that can vary.”
Belant says males do tend to be the first to move into an area in recolonization but that it can take decades or more time.
“The process of a recolonizing large carnivore is fascinating both from an ecological perspective because they have such a strong impact on the ecosystem but also, like Jerry was saying, on society,” said Gantchoff. “That people have very strong feelings about large carnivores so it’s always important to know where they are and the potential for conflict.”
Belant and Gantchoff analyzed data from the last 10 years of reported sightings. Gantchoff says continued analysis will be necessary because recolonization is a process. If, eventually, they find evidence of reproduction then they will need to reassess because established animals tend to prefer different areas than dispersing animals.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources accepts reports of cougars through a form on their cougar webpage. There are other animals that the DNR accepts reports of including moose, wolves, lynx and more.