Cougar sightings: Ghosts of a predator past|jon_downes|jon@cfz.org.uk|12/15/03 at 21:47:16|jon_downes|xx|0|217.44.226.21|Milwaukee (WI) Journal Sentinel:
Cougar sightings: Ghosts of a predator past
By DAN EGAN
Nov. 29, 2003

Bark River, Mich. - Park Service volunteer Eleanor Comings figured she was
alone on a trail at Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in
September when she was suddenly met by two black pupils. Cougar pupils.

"He was close enough that I could have patted him on the back," Comings says
of the beast that silently sprang from the shadows and then followed her for
about 20 minutes before disappearing. "He had kind of a cold look. It goes
right through you almost."

It was as if she had seen a ghost.

The federal government thinks perhaps she did.

Michigan's endangered Eastern cougar is, according to the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, likely extinct. The agency believes the last of the killer
cats
that thrive on deer and can grow to more than 150 pounds were extirpated in
the
state about 100 years ago.

Same story for cougars in Wisconsin.

But reports of roaming cougars, also known as mountain lions, continue to
mount in the upper Midwest - from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to
Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, from the cornfields of Iowa to the suburban
enclaves of
eastern Minnesota.

Cat advocates contend it is time for federal and state wildlife agencies to
acknowledge the presence of what they believe is the last sliver of wild
cougar
population left in the Midwest. It is, they believe, the only chance the
species has at long-term survival in the region.

The federal government is actively working to restore the same species in
Florida, where it is called the panther.

"The real question is: Do we want cougars in Wisconsin, Minnesota and
Michigan, or not?" asks Patrick Rusz of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, a
group
bent on proving that a remnant wild cougar population persists in the
region.

"If the answer is yes, then we ought to find out more about them so we can
make the right decisions. Right now, the stance of the feds and states is
that
we don't know (if cougars exist), but we aren't going to study them because
we
don't have the money, time or inclination that this is anything worthwhile."

Ron Refsnider, regional endangered species listing coordinator for U.S. Fish
and Wildlife in Minnesota, doesn't doubt Comings' story.

He just doesn't think the cats people are spotting in the Midwest are truly
wild.

Refsnider says a more plausible explanation is that they are merely a shadow
of the once-wild population - escaped pets that are likely descendants of
cougars from South America or the western United States, where the species
thrives
and is not listed as endangered.

Officials with state wildlife management agencies in Wisconsin and Michigan
also do not acknowledge the existence of a cougar population within their
borders.

Retired Michigan DNR forester Mike Zuidema can't figure that out.

The 62-year-old who spent his career in wilds of the Upper Peninsula long
doubted that the region was home to cougars, but his opinion changed the day
he
saw a massive cat lope across a field and disappear into the woods with a
single, 20-foot leap.

Zuidema has since become something of an evangelist for spreading the word
that wild cougars are alive and well in the North Woods.

He has interviewed hundreds of people who he believes have had legitimate
cat
encounters over the last several decades. He estimates that the UP alone is
likely home to about 20 of the animals, and he has no doubt that some of
those
cats range across the state line and into northern Wisconsin.

"It's a real dumb thing on the part of the (government) to say that they're
pets," Zuidema says. "Where did they come from? My god, does everybody with
cougar pets come to the UP to release them?"

Common sense tells him a pet likely wouldn't survive long in the wild.

"Almost every cougar pet is declawed," Zuidema says. "So how are they going
to kill deer?"

Park Service volunteer Comings chuckles at the notion that what she
encountered was a stray pet, and the Park Service is concerned enough now to
place
signs throughout the area warning visitors that they are entering cougar
country.

"We've had cougar sightings in the park for many years, probably dating back
20 years," says Steve Yancho, Sleeping Bear's resource management chief.
"The
credibility of the reports has gotten to the point that we know something is
out there."

Wisconsin DNR large predator expert Adrian Wydeven says cougar reports in
Wisconsin have been on the increase in recent years, but so far there is no
proof
a breeding population exists. Wydeven says more than a 100 volunteers have
been dispatched to the woods in recent years to look for predator tracks,
including cougar. The best his agency has been able to produce is a set of
tracks
that may or may not be from a cougar, he says.

"As a person studying predators, I'd love to see cougars (in the state), but
we're certainly not finding the evidence," he says.

Michigan DNR biologists report a similar situation in the UP.

"I have to believe that with the number of sightings we're getting, that
sooner or later we'd come up with some evidence, but we just aren't," says
Michigan DNR wildlife biologist Brian Roell. "We've had a handful of
pictures of
animals - videotapes and stuff. But they're all kind of fuzzy, like what you
see
if you're looking at a Bigfoot picture - just a cat-shaped blob."

Roell is tired of people accusing the DNR of a coverup.

"All these people have these big theories that there is a conspiracy by the
DNR not to recognize cougars or accept their presence. Well, show me some
proof, and I'd be happy to recognize their presence," he says.

"Show me some proof?" asks Rusz, who holds a PhD in wildlife ecology from
Michigan State University. "We've provided videotapes, pictures of cougars,
DNA
samples that have come back positive."

Brad Swanson, a wildlife biologist at Central Michigan University, confirms
that Rusz provided him with seven scat samples that he identified as cougar.

"I'm pretty convinced there are at least seven cougars running around the
state of Michigan," Swanson says.

That is not enough for the federal government to swoop in with the full
weight of its Endangered Species Act, which could mean stiff fines for
anyone
harming a cougar or its habitat.

The federal government has used the Endangered Species Act to restore wolves
to the Upper Midwest. A big reason for that threatened species' return is
the
heavy penalties for people who kill the animal. Refsnider says at this point
he is not ready to offer the cats the same type of protection.

"It's not nearly as simple as being able to document that a cougar is out
there," Refsnider says. "Until we get some good evidence that those indeed
are
Eastern cougars, we're not inclined to run out there and apply the
protection of
the endangered species act to those animals."

And that, he says, may never happen, because genetic evidence is emerging
that shows there is no distinction between Eastern and Western cougars. The
Eastern cougar's endangered listing in 1973, Refsnider says, might have been
a
mistake.

"At this point, we have some serious doubts that there is such a thing as an
Eastern subspecies," Refsnider says.

Rusz has doubts of his own - about how the wildlife management agencies are
handling the cougar question. He accuses state and federal agencies of
trying
to wiggle out of their responsibility to protect a beleaguered species.

"Who cares about this bogus question as to whether it's an . . . Eastern
cougar?" he says. "The fact is, there are not a lot of them. Do we want to
save
them or not? We have to have an intelligent discussion as to whether this
animal
is worth saving."



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