Friday, March 30, 2007

Nearly 1,000 people say they've seen cougars in Michigan

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Close to 1,000 people have reported seeing a cougar in Michigan in the last five years, says an official with state Department of Natural Resources.

But only one of those reports, of a cougar hit by a car in 2004 in Menominee County, has been confirmed, said David Bostick, a specialist with the DNR Wildlife Division in Lansing.

Still, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has begun taking reports of sightings of the endangered species in Michigan and other eastern states for the first time since 1982.

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, a nonprofit group in Bath, contends that the DNR is refusing to acknowledge a wild, resident breeding population of about 100 adult cougars in Michigan for various reasons.

Dennis Fijalkowski, conservancy executive director, hopes federal involvement will result in a delisting of a so-called subspecies of eastern cougar in Michigan, allowing DNR officials to acknowledge and begin managing the state's cougar population.

Fijalkowski believes Michigan's cougar population is in danger of dying off without state intervention.

"I'm concerned about your child and their children's children having the opportunity some day to see a wild cougar in Michigan," Fijalkowski said.

Cougars were originally native to Michigan, but were extirpated from the state around the turn of the century.

Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of the Michigan State University School of Journalism, is pretty sure she saw a cougar last summer at her cottage in Alcona County's Haynes Township.

She was out for her morning run by the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse.

"I saw a big, huge cat cross the road about 100 yards in front of me," Briggs-Bunting said. "He kind of stopped, looked at me and then he took off like a shot."

Briggs-Bunting said she'd never seen a cougar before, and didn't think much of it until some neighbors down the road also said they'd seen one.

"I have dogs," she said. "I've seen lots of deer. I've seen lots of coyotes and it wasn't any of those."

Briggs-Bunting said her husband later told her to give up her morning run. She hasn't, but she carries pepper spray now.

Bostick said he thinks the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, is passionate, but more evidence is needed to verify a resident population of cougars in Michigan.

The DNR has been taking cougar sighting reports since January 2002, but more have come in since a Web site was publicized in October 2006, Bostick said.

He said only about 5 percent of 990 reports made since 2002 are "good sightings," with tracks, scat, pictures or video.

He encourages people to call their nearest DNR office if they have a good sighting, rather than reporting it online.

The only verified sighting, he said, is an incident in Menominee County where a motorist hit an animal with a car. A state trooper collected hair off the bumper, and that hair was tested at a lab and found to be "probable cougar hair," Bostick said.

Fijalkowski said his group and other enthusiasts have logged more than 1,500 cougar sightings in Michigan in the last five years.

Eight cougars were positively identified from scat by conservancy and Central Michigan University researchers in peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal in 2006. The scat was found in Houghton, Menominee, Delta, Dickinson, Emmet, Presque Isle, Alcona and Roscommon counties.

Fijalkowski argues that "the forces of evil" - money, power, ego and turf - are behind the DNR's reluctance to acknowledge the big cats.

The state doesn't want to argue with the federal government over management, doesn't want to spend the money to manage the population itself and doesn't want to stray from its longtime stance, Fijalkowski said.

He thinks the DNR has discouraged people from reporting cougar sightings because agency officials have "made fools of" people who reported sightings in the past.

Bostick said he's not part of any conspiracy.

He said the DNR is taking cougar sightings seriously and spends a considerable amount of time tracking down cougar reports in hopes of verifying sightings, to address people's concerns about safety issues.

The DNR has developed internal cougar response guidelines and has trained personnel in New Mexico on cougar identification.

"We know there are some out there, so we're not necessarily disputing that there are cougars in Michigan, but in our minds there's some questions as to where they came from," Bostick said

"At this point, no, we do not believe we have a breeding population," he added. "We may have occasional cougars in Michigan, I guess the best way to put it would be 'of unknown origin,"' such as escaped or released pets or transients from western cougar populations.

Fijalkowski said he thinks the involvement of U.S. Fish and Wildlife may be a good thing.

He believes the feds will delist the eastern cougar as a subspecies of the western cougar, allowing the DNR to acknowledge and manage a cougar population in Michigan without federal interference.

"The western cougars aren't protected," Fijalkowski said. "We think it might give the states what they need, a bump to acknowledge these animals, because they'll no longer have the shadow of the federal government on them."

Bostick said that even if cougars were recognized by the DNR, the agency would continue doing things it already does to manage other species, like protecting travel corridors for black bears.

"It's kind of hard to do a management plan for something that is apparently so rare that you're having trouble confirming that it's in the state," he said.

- Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639 or by e-mail at base/news-9/1175008513254160.xml&coll=4

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