By Nate Reens
The Grand Rapids Press
Saturday, October 07, 2006
GRAND HAVEN -- State wildlife authorities said Friday they plan to take more interest in reports of cougar sightings and that next spring three staffers will learn about the animals from experts in New Mexico.
The moves, made under pressure from groups such as the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, signals a modest change from the Department of Natural Resources longtime stance that the big cats do not exist beyond transient creatures and released pets.
The agency has yet to confirm cougars are established and breeding in the state, a line that Grand Haven woman Rita Pieper says will likely never be crossed.
Pieper, with her husband, Glenn, spotted a 6-foot cougar at Grand Haven Township's Hofma Preserve last September. She is less than encouraged by the newfound attention.
"For years, they've refused to admit they exist and, now, suddenly they're going to take it seriously. I don't think that's the case," Pieper said. "They've had all sorts of time in the past and done nothing. The cats are here, and sooner or later there will be no doubt in anyone's mind."
State wildlife division chief Doug Reeves said his department is crafting guidelines for workers who receive reports of cougar sightings or attacks on pets or livestock. It also will add a cougar page to its Web site.
"We're taking it more seriously than we have in the past," Reeves said. "I'm not going to say there is or isn't. We acknowledge that there is scientific evidence of (cougars) that's been found here in Michigan. We do not have evidence ourselves of reproduction."
Reeves said agency workers have investigated claims of cougar sightings but they've come up empty.
Pieper says that's because rarely do wildlife workers appear to check out the sighting in a timely fashion. "It's always three or four days later and they treat you like you're from Mars," she said. "In that time, the tracks can get covered, the evidence is gone."
Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the wildlife conservancy, believes there could be up to 100 cougars in the state. The animal was declared extinct in the 1930s, but he doesn't believe they ever died out.
Beth Dubbink, of East Saugatuck in Allegan County, hasn't seen any of the predators. As evidence, she points to her animals -- two horses with scratch marks and torn shoulder muscle wounds and a golden retriever that snapped a double-stitched collar in apparent panic three months ago.
State biologists told her to keep an eye out for the animals.
Dubbink believes the DNR's changing attitude is a good sign.
"I know I am very wary of what's outside now," she said. "My dog barks in the middle of the night and I'm up with a gun."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.