Monday, February 02, 2009

Cougar debate hits Mich. state senate

Committee hears testimony on wild cat population

By Randy Conat

LANSING (WJRT) -- (01/29/09) -- Some state legislators want the Department of Natural Resources to admit there are cougars in Lower Michigan.

A state Senate committee got an earful today from several who have seen the big cats.

DNR biologists say there's no evidence of an established cougar population in Michigan, although they admit a few may pass through Upper Peninsula on occasion. But that's not the case, according to testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee today. Eyewitnesses discussed several sightings in southern Michigan, including one in northeastern Lapeer County.

"That cat came within 20-40 yards of the house. Our boys convinced us it was time to start educating the people and come forward," Bob Van Den Berg of Imlay City said.

From Jackson County: I met the cougar in person. He was approximately three car lengths in front of my vehicle.

From Montcalm County: And as I'm driving along the road, here comes a cougar bounding out of a swamp.

The senators also heard from the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. The Clinton County-based organization has collected DNA samples from cougars in four locations in the UP and four more in the Lower.

"Our DNR nevertheless continues to tell the public that they have no evidence of cougars in the Lower Peninsula," said the conservancy's Dr. Patrick Rusz.

Conservancy members like Rusz believe the DNR is ignoring the evidence because the agency would then be required to spend money on research and protection if it officially recognized the cougars presence here.

Dennis Fijalkowski is also a member of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. "There's clearly a conspiracy between a small number of people in the department that's been able to hide this species for 40 years."

"I believe the DNR has full evidence that there are cougars throughout the state of Michigan," said Sen. John Gleason, (D) Flushing.

Senator Gleason says the legislature controls the purse strings, so it's possible to put some financial pressure on the DNR to get them to officially recognize there are cougars in southern Michigan.

DNR officials did not attend today's hearing, but did send us a statement (below).

We've posted the statment as it was sent to us by the DNR.

The DNR has long maintained there have been instances of transient cougars in Michigan, but no scientific evidence that there is a breeding, established population here. Here is more from Russ Mason, our chief of the DNR Wildlife Division:

No doubt cougars walk in and out of Michigan occasionally. Cougars populations are expanding across the plains in our direction from the Rockies. We have reported and verified presence of several individuals. Most likely these wandering animals were looking for mates and finding none, moved on. Cougar patrol ranges include verified instances of hundreds of miles with the beginning and end of the walk about very close together. At present, we have no evidence of an established population (dog hunters don't tree them, cars don't hit them, and the 'depredations' reported to us that I've seen are absolutely not lion attacks (according to professional depredation lion hunting friends of mine with hundreds of attack investigations and lion kills to their names). More pertinent, having a Michigan veterinarian diagnose lion attacks is breathtaking (think no experience, no training, no skill)- which is why predator attacks in states with predators are typically verified by Wildlife Services, agency predator specialists, etc.-folks with specialized training and skill-never by veterinarians. The last Nevada veterinarian 'predator expert' I worked with misdiagnosed a fatal case of West Nile in a horse for a black bear attack. Honest!

Nevertheless, eventually and almost certainly, cougars will establish in low densities here.

Should a breeding population become established, I expect we'd declare them protected and investigate 'attacks' on a case by case basis. Human health and safety lions, and lions in suburban or urban areas would be killed or possibly relocated in exceptional circumstances. Otherwise, lions would be left to their own devices unless they got into trouble (eg, livestock predation, etc); these problem animals would be killed. We would not engage in any specific habitat work on behalf of lions. In reality, the only plausible place for lions to establish would be the UP. The LP is too densely populated with humans, and most lions would be removed for cause.


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