Sunday, February 08, 2009

Michigan officials need to acknowledge cougars

DNR needs to acknowledge we have cougars
Agency must start to do research

BY ERIC SHARP
FREE PRESS OUTDOORS WRITER
February 1, 2009

GRAYLING -- Sick of staring out my office windows at seemingly endless snow falling on Lake Margrethe, I wandered into town the other day and stopped in the Old Au Sable Fly Shop.

Manager Andy Partlo and his crew were unpacking boxes of gadgets that would mean nothing to a non-angler but immediately cause a trout fisherman's hand to twitch toward his wallet.

As I browsed the fly-tying supplies, I mentioned that a legislative committee was holding hearings on whether cougars existed in Michigan, and I wasn't surprised when folks in the store responded immediately with stories of how they, or people they knew, had seen the cats.

No one can doubt that there is a small population of cougars in Michigan. You might still argue about where they came from, but people have collected enough hair and blood samples from cats that were hit by cars or shot and enough scat left by cougars, that we know people see them fairly regularly in some parts of the state.

That was made plain Thursday at a Senate Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee hearing called by chairman Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Muskegon.

He wants to know why the Department of Natural Resources won't acknowledge that there seems to be a breeding population of cougars, and why the agency won't live up to its mandate under the state Endangered Species Act to study and try to protect them.

"There's a lot of speculation going on (about the DNR's attitude on cougars), but somehow I think it involves money," Van Woerkom said. "I think they are worried that it would mean shifting resources from one program to another."

After hearing from witnesses who ranged from scientists to veterinarians to regular folks, Van Woerkom said every member of his committee is convinced that these people didn't see dogs or house cats but saw real cougars that in some cases had to be breeding.

"When reliable people tell you they saw a cougar with kittens, that's pretty good evidence," Van Woerkom said. "I've been bringing this up with the DNR for three or four years and they just kind of blow it off, saying we have no physical evidence. But that's not true. We have physical evidence, and it looks like (cougars) stretch from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron.

"We really need some kind of response from the DNR. We need to know what the hang-up is. Why don't they want to acknowledge this when there's all that evidence out there that can't be brushed away?"

Mary Dettloff, a spokesperson for the DNR, said the agency doesn't do cougar research because while "we acknowledge that cougars sometimes wander into Michigan, there's no scientific evidence that there's a breeding population in the state."

Dettloff noted that the DNR did confirm the tracks of two cougars found in the Upper Peninsula last year and noted that the agency sends a trained biologist to investigate many reports of cougar sightings.

There's no question that many sightings are bogus. One man sent the DNR some trail camera pictures that he thought were a cougar but clearly were pictures of a coyote.

But that doesn't explain the dozens of sightings at close range by people who couldn't be mistaken -- or the cougar scat that has been confirmed by DNA analysis from numerous sites around Michigan; nor the fact that some places in Michigan have had reliable cougar sightings for decades.

And if the DNR wants to look inside its own walls, a number of its biologists, conservation officers and forestry officials have seen cougars in Michigan.

If only 1% of the stories I've heard are true, then it's clear that a small population of cougars must be breeding in a few places, and the DNR is failing its obligation under the Michigan Endangered Species Act to "perform those acts necessary for the conservation, protection, restoration and propagation of endangered and threatened species of fish, wildlife and plants."

Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, whose group has documented several individual cougars in Michigan from scat analysis, said, "We're not asking (the DNR) to spend a lot of money on a new endangered species program. We just want them to start collecting evidence and try to determine how many are here and what we should be doing for them."

It's not surprising that the DNR has failed to find evidence of a breeding cougar population when it makes no serious effort to determine if there is one, or look at why some places produce so many cougar reports.

The agency's attitude is that until the public brings it solid evidence, say a dead cat, then it's not interested in looking into the issue seriously.

But why should it be up to untrained members of the public or non-profit groups to attempt wildlife management assessments under the Endangered Species Act?

That's what we pay the DNR wildlife department to do, and I hope Van Woerkom finds a way to make the agency at least acknowledge its obligation.

Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or esharp@freepress.com.

http://www.freep.com/article/20090201/SPORTS10/902010396/1058/DNR+needs+to+acknowledge+we+have+cougars

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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