Sunday, August 20, 2006

Michigan cougar debate continues

Published: Friday, August 18, 2006

ESCANABA, Michigan — Mike Zuidema, Patrick Rusz and Dennis Fijakowski, representing the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy (MWC), gave joint testimony to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Commission (NRC) regarding the long standing history of cougar sightings and more recent scientific evidence.

Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs for MWC since 1986, highlighted cougar research over the last eight years. Since the spring of 2001 through 2003 alone, 297 scats (animal feces believed to be from wild cat species) were studied from areas within Delta, Dickinson, Houghton and Menominee Counties in the Upper Peninsula. DNA tests performed in the study confirm that some were in fact from cougar.

In 2005, a report of a cougar being hit by a car was confirmed, again via DNA testing, only this time using body hair. The location of the incident was approximately ten miles from one of the positive scat finds in Delta County.

Former DNR forester Mike Zuidema presented his file representing 975 reported sightings over more than 32 years. Zuidema indicated originally, he too was skeptical, until he saw his first cougar in Menominee County along M35 on March 10, 1981. He later found many reports had been registered with the DNR. Then the agency did not recognize the existence of cougars in the U.P. or the State of Michigan.

Dennis Fijakowski, Executive Director of the MWC presented more cougar history and exclaimed the science facts are in and it is time for the NRC to stop the denial and take action to protect the Michigan cougar. He and the other panelists explained the cougar has been listed as endangered since 1994 and the NRC is further bound to provide management.

The cougar is listed as endangered in the state under the State Endangered Species for mammals (R299.1027- Felis concolor Linnaelus). The 1994 Endangered Species Act (MCL324.36503) also requires the NRC/MDNR to “Investigate the species within two years of the effective date and every two years thereafter.”

I contacted Todd Hogrefe who works in the Wildlife Non-game Species Division of the DNR. He explained there is ongoing study work with surveys on 8,000 miles of trails annually. In specific cases, trail cameras have been set up and bait used to see if these cats could be lured within range.

There is no question as to the existence of cougars in Michigan. The issue remains whether or not there is a breeding population. It is here the debate intensifies.

NRC Commissioners Frank Wheatlake and John Madigan both indicated they do not believe there is a breeding population. There is no science beyond individual cases to support the theory. Commission Chairman Keith Charters interrupted the sometimes heated exchange by laying the question to Fijakowski as to what they now want from the DNR and NRC?

Fijakowski insisted the DNR develop a management plan to protect the mammals. Charters said “We must be doing something right as there are no reported accidental shootings and (except for one) we’re not hitting them with cars.”

There is an ongoing study in North Dakota that issues five permits for cougar to establish whether or not a population exists. All five permits were filled (and a second hunt is scheduled to take place this year). Unfortunately, the cougar is listed as endangered in Michigan and to do the verification hunt would require de-listing (to a game species) by the legislature. Fijakowski even suggested that if there is no further proof of the existence of a breeding population, the state should consider the importation of cougar from other states to support the present population. However that is also prohibited (with the hunting) under the Act in section 324.36505.

Fijakowski’s suggestion of importing cougars to Michigan is a dangerous precedent and parallels efforts to establish lynx. To do so would require specific habitat and exclude areas of public recreation and forest management.

Commissioner Mary Brown suggested “It is reasonable to be skeptical that cougar (do or do not) exist in Michigan. The information available today warrants further investigation. Commissioner Bob Garner then asked Wildlife Chief Bill Moritz to have an update from the Wildlife Division in time for the October meeting of the NRC in Lansing.

Chairman Charters stated it is then that the NRC will review the Endangered Species Act to decide the next course of action.

Tim Kobasic is the Outdoors Editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer of Trails & Tales Outdoors Radio aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications Cable and the Internet on Saturday morning.

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