Francis X. Donnelly / The Detroit News
TRAVERSE CITY -- No cougars live in Michigan, say some state and federal wildlife officials.
But a conservation group believes so many of the big cats exist that they cover the state.
Somewhere between those two views lies the truth, which has become as elusive as the skittish animal at the center of the debate, cougar experts said.
The argument has grown increasingly bitter with charges of hoaxes, cover-ups, blurry photos reminiscent of Bigfoot sightings, a state agency accused of violating state law, scientists accused of ignoring their own research, and a dead pet panther named Sasha.
"It's about money, ego, power -- all the forces of evil," said Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, about the controversy.
The disagreement is more than an academic food fight. The two sides agree that public safety is at stake, but, as with everything else dealing with the issue, they disagree how.
The wildlife conservancy, based in Bath, near Lansing, says the government is failing to protect residents and an endangered species.
The state and federal officials say the conservation group is needlessly scaring people.
Cougars -- also called mountain lions -- seldomly attack humans, but a growing number of reported sightings -- 1,200 since 2001 -- has alarmed residents around the state.
Last year, Berrien County on the Indiana border issued a public safety advisory after an attack on a horse, and in June Battle Creek police did the same after officers reportedly spotted several cougars.
Eleanor Comings, 62, a volunteer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City, said she was followed by a cougar for 20 minutes along one of the park trails in 2003.
"When I first saw it, it was my worst nightmare," she said. "My second thought was: Everyone wants to see one, and here it is."
Searching for hard evidence
A peer-reviewed study recently published in the "American Midland Naturalist" cited proof of eight cougars in Michigan.
The study, by Central Michigan University and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said researchers found DNA evidence of the animals by analyzing nearly 300 samples of droppings collected from 2001 to 2003.
The eight positive samples were located in four Upper Peninsula counties: Delta, Dickinson, Houghton and Menominee, and four in the Lower Peninsula: Alcona, Emmet, Presque Isle and Roscommon.
Partly because of the study, the state Department of Natural Resources added a cougar page to its Web site and will send three staffers to New Mexico to develop more expertise on the animal.
The DNR's action sounded one of the few cordial notes in the raucous debate, but some wildlife officials remain dubious about the wildlife conservancy.
Mike DeCapita, endangered species chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in East Lansing, criticized the conservancy on several counts, including its use of blurry photos of cougars to prove their existence.
"Sightings of Bigfoot or UFOs don't prove those phenomena either," he said.
Where do they come from?
In the 1800s, cougars prowled all over Michigan and the rest of North America. The tan animal can grow up to 8 feet from nose to tail tip and weigh 200 pounds. It can run 40 miles per hour and eat up to 10 pounds of deer a day.
The animal was poisoned, trapped and hunted to near extinction a century ago.
The wildlife conservancy believes cougars were never exterminated in Michigan, and that the population has grown to 100.
It said the DNR is violating the state endangered species law by failing to develop a management plan to protect the cougar. But state officials said the law doesn't require a management plan, only that it protect the animal.
Mike Zuidema, a retired forester with the DNR, began keeping track of cougar sightings in 1981 and continued after his retirement in 1997. His journal lists 1,000 sightings, including several by DNR officials, including a former deputy director.
He doesn't understand how someone could question the animal's existence. "They don't know what they're talking about," he said. "They sit at their desk too much."
But some state and federal wildlife biologists continue to believe no cougars live in Michigan and that the occasional one found here came from outside the state.
They said the fact that so few big cats are killed by cars or hunters in Michigan suggests that their number here is negligible.
Scientists said it's nearly impossible to prove where a cougar comes from, but that hasn't stopped both sides from jumping into the gray area with both feet.
Bias enters debate for proof
In the cougar debate, both sides accuse the other of being more interested in pushing their beliefs than searching for the truth.
When a resident took a photo of an apparent cougar in an Alcona County field several years ago, a DNR wildlife biologist dismissed it as being staged. He said the animal may have been stuffed.
But another DNR biologist, Larry Robinson, later said he saw the cougar and it was real.
"This is a note I absolutely dread writing," he wrote in an e-mail to his supervisors. "I had the terrible misfortune of seeing the Alcona Co. cougar."
Robinson, who took photos of the cougar's tracks, asked his bosses how to keep his discovery out of the public eye.
"What do I do to get the pictures and info to our division files without this getting out to the media?"
Robinson, who is now retired, said Friday he couldn't recall when his discovery was reported by the press. DNR officials said the agency doesn't engage in misleading the public.
In a separate incident, the wildlife conservancy released a video in 2004 that purported to show proof of wild cougars living in Michigan.
Among the evidence was a skull found by woodcutters in Chippewa County in the Upper Peninsula.
But another conservancy group, the Cougar Network, of Concord, Mass., investigated the claim and traced the skull to a pet mountain lion named Sasha.
After Sasha died, its owner took it to a Chippewa taxidermy shop to be mounted. The taxidermist tossed the skull out his back door, where another animal apparently carried it to an adjacent property.
You can reach Francis X. Donnelly at (313) 223-4186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.