Wednesday, September 27, 2006
One certainty seems to have surfaced in the lengthy wrangle over cougars in Michigan: There are cougars here. According to witnesses' accounts, there are more than just a few. The state now has a serious obligation to shed light on the matter.
At the very least, safety education is needed: what cougars are, where they may be encountered, how to react and how to avoid dangerous situations.
Visitors to the federal Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore already are put on notice, with signs warning visitors that they are "in cougar habitat." The notices come with specific do's and don't's if a cougar is seen or if a person is attacked. The alerts were posted following several years of reports of cougars, followed by a specific instance in 2003 of a respected park volunteer being followed.
Statewide, the big cats have been reported from the Upper Peninsula to counties along the Indiana and Ohio borders. Attacks on horses, deer and smaller animals have been described. Several people brought their experiences to Saugatuck this month for a meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission. The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy tracks these reports and is pressing the NRC to acknowledge a permanent population of cougars and to develop a protective plan for them.
The Department of Natural Resources, overseen by the NRC, contends there is no evidence of a breeding population -- no road-killed cougars, for instance, or reports of houndsmen treeing a cougar.
The NRC has asked the DNR for a detailed report, which may be presented at the NRC's Oct. 5 meeting in Lansing. It's a necessary step. Cougars, also known as mountain lions, are neither small nor harmless.
This isn't cause for alarm but does call for information. The people of the state need to know the cougar facts in some detail. If there is a resident population here, what precautions are in order? What defenses?
Eventually, Michigan would have to determine whether the animal should be protected or whether the risk to human life is overriding. Either way, the starting point must be an objective and thorough assessment of the situation. The NRC has a duty to provide that.