Case for the cougar |jon_downes||01/06/04 at 12:26:51|jon_downes|xx|0||Case for the cougar

As cougar sightings mount in Michigan, conservancy calls for protection, DNR action

Sunday, January 4, 2004

By Steve Neavling
Times Writer

The phone calls to Roscommon County Animal Control Director Terry MacKillop usually begin the same way.

"You're going to think I'm nuts, but ..."

When MacKillop hangs up the phone, he adds another name to the growing list of people who claim they spotted a cougar, the wild cat believed to have been killed off in the state by bounty hunters in 1906.

"Everyone acts like they saw a space ship when they see one," he said.

MacKillop acknowledges he was skeptical when he fielded the first complaint about 13 years ago, when a big cat attacked a sheep and dragged it off. But his doubts vanished when he saw a cougar while investigating a sighting about three years ago, he said.

"We were in the area (of the sighting) and I caught a glance of it off the road," he said. "It was a large cat, with a large tail."

Reported encounters with the big cat are on the rise locally and across the state, raising the possibility that cougars survived near extinction in Michigan.

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, a nonprofit group heading the drive to research and save cougars in the state, has collected throngs of evidence, including thousands of reported sightings, a series of livestock attacks, positive DNA tests and photographs.

In making its case for the cougar, the conservancy has focused on a swath of woodlands and swamps starting just north of Bay County, where some biologists believe the cougar retreated and survived in the 20th century.

Some of the conservancy's strongest evidence - including more than 100 sightings - has emerged from Roscommon, Ogemaw, Oscoda and Alcona counties.

Numerous sightings also have been reported in the Thumb and Bay, Saginaw, Gladwin, Arenac, Gladwin and Iosco counties, said Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the conservancy.

"This is an area where it's quite possible the cougars survived in the Lower Peninsula," Fijalkowski said. "If the cougar population there is a remnant population, and we believe it is, than that area is probably credited with saving cougars throughout the 20th century."

The researchers estimate 30 to 50 adult cougars live in the Upper Peninsula and 20 to 30 in the northern Lower Peninsula.

The problem is, the Department of Natural Resources is unwilling to acknowledge the cougar, citing its decades-old position that the state is no longer home to a breeding population. DNR officials insist people have trouble discerning cougars from bobcats, deer and dogs. If cougars are spotted in the wild, officials maintain, they probably escaped or were released from captivity.

Officials point to the scores of cougars kept as pets until 1989, when the cat was designated as an endangered species. No state law required registration of pet cougars, making it impossible to track the animal.

"We don't doubt there could be cougars running around the state," said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the DNR. "There were piranhas caught in Michigan lakes, but it's not piranha country.

"The question is whether we have a breeding, resident population that needs to be managed." Wurfel said. "That's the question for us. ... We are looking for a needle of proof in a haystack of hype in Michigan."

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy rejects the pet theory, saying domesticated cougars couldn't survive more than a month in the wild. Pet cougars were typically declawed and sometimes defanged, and never learned to hunt. An average life span of a wild cougar is about 15 to 20 years.

"The pet theory is totally implausible because these sighting reports have been coming in for decades in the same locations," Fijalkowski said. "That means there is a cougar or cougars inhabiting a big block of habitat."

In the summer of 2001, a team of conservancy researchers set out to investigate areas with repeated sightings, and emerged with feline scat - or droppings - to test at Central Michigan University.

The scat tested positive for cougar in Roscommon and Alcona counties, as well as Dickinson, Delta, Menominee, Emmet, and Presque Isle counties, said Pat Rusz, head cougar research scientist for the conservancy.

"This is irrefutable physical evidence," said Rusz, of St. Charles. "We didn't discover the cougar in Michigan. We just documented what a lot of people knew was common knowledge."

The conservancy team believes cougars retreated to remote areas when settlers began leveling wildlife habitat for lumber and other natural resources. But the state's northeast escaped most of the sprawl as residents preserved thousands of acres for hunting clubs, giving cougars shelter and plenty of deer herds, the cat's main prey, Fijalkowski said.

Nelson Yoder, a contributing editor for the Northern Journal in Ogemaw County, said he has stockpiled more than 100 sightings in northeast Michigan, many concentrated in the hunting clubs.

"It's not unusual for me to collect one or two sightings a day," Yoder said.

"I don't doubt people when they say they saw a cougar. It might seem amazing at first, but after I gathered so many sightings, it has become commonplace."

The best known photograph of a wild cougar in the state, Fijalkowski said, was taken in northern Alcona County near Curran. James Duetsch, of Mitchell Township, said he took the photo in August 1997 after spotting a cougar along the Hubbard Lake Trail.

"I just coasted right up to the cougar with my pickup and stuck the camera out the window, and then (the cougar) was gone," said Duetsch, who claims he has spotted a cougar a handful of times. "I wasn't sure if I got the picture or not" until the photograph was developed.

DNR officials insist the photograph doesn't prove whether the cougar was a wild cat or an escaped pet.

Millie Socia, of Fairview, has heard the stories of cougar sightings from local farmers for years before she says she had her first encounter in 1982.

Socia was driving on a dirt road near McCollum Lake at the border of Alcona and Oscoda counties when she said a cougar emerged from the underbrush and stopped in front of her car.

"It crossed right in front of me. At first I though it was a deer," she said. "Then I thought, 'No way, that is no deer.' It was definitely a cougar. It startled me. I didn't dare get out of the car."

The encounter has frightened Socia.

"People are seeing cougars all over," she said. "They're getting around, and it's scary to know. I hope I don't see one again."

While cougar attacks are rare, they have increased in the past decade throughout North America. Government agencies reported more than 60 attacks throughout the 1990s, seven of them fatal.

"This has become a public safety issue," Fijalkowski said. "We want our citizens to learn about cougars through some education process and not some newspaper story describing a deadly encounter between a human and cougar."

The state's reluctance to acknowledge the cougar hasn't stopped federal park rangers from posting "cougar habitat" signs at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwestern Michigan, where big cat sightings were reported for years by biologists and park officials.

The signs read: "You are a visitor in cougar habitat. There have been recent cougar sightings in this area."

Park officials posted the signs after a Park Service volunteer described a frightening encounter with a cougar in September. The volunteer, Eleanor Comings, said the cougar crossed within feet of her on a remote trail.

"It stopped right in front of me," she said. "It was not showing any fear of me at all. It just gave me that nice cold cougar look and just stayed there. I just froze. It was one of those things that you think isn't real."

As the cougar circled around her, Comings said she walked slowly, hoping to avoid an attack. But the cougar - with a tail "as thick as a man's hand" - followed her, she said.

"It was following me right along the trail about 3 to 5 feet from me for about 20 minutes," she said. "As it followed me, I was getting more scared."

Cougar advocates hope the increased sightings and DNA evidence convince the DNR to acknowledge the cougar in time to save the animal within the state. Researchers fear the cougars may be suffering genetic defects from inbreeding because the animal is so rare. One way to avoid inbreeding is to introduce healthy females into the state, Fijalkowski said.

But the first steps to preserve the animal, advocates say, won't happen until the DNR acknowledges a population of resident cougars.

But Wurfel said the state likely won't recognize the cougar until one is captured or found dead.

"They aren't having any impact on resources if they are out there," he said. "Right now they are invisible."

But Fijalkowski maintains the DNR is thwarting state and federal laws that require the protection of endangered species.

"We believe this animal is arguably the rarest in Michigan," he said. "Given that small number of animals, this population is in dire jeopardy of being wiped off the state map. ... We have a responsibility to protect this beautiful animal."

- Steve Neavling is a staff reporter for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9645.