Last Updated: December 05. 2009 2:47PM
Wild debate over cougars
Jim Lynch / The Detroit News
To this day, Walter Hempel isn't 100 percent sure what crossed in front of his car five years ago on U.S. 23 outside of Rogers City. But he cataloged what he saw with the hunter's eyes he's used in the wilds of Michigan for most of his 80 years.
The loping gait, snub nose, high ears and drooped belly -- after taking it all in, he figured he'd just seen a cougar.
In Michigan, such a statement can be enough to start a nasty argument. So even years later, Hempel is quick to follow up by saying: "I have no reason to lie or make something like that up."
A trail-cam photo of a cougar snapped roaming the eastern Upper Peninsula in October -- the first such photo verified by Michigan's Department of Natural Resources -- has given new life to the debate over whether the endangered species is here in substantial numbers.
There's more than curiosity at stake. Some wildlife enthusiasts fear that despite hundreds of reported sightings from all over the state -- as well as one group's claims to have found DNA evidence of cougars in eight different counties -- Michigan officials are denying the true extent of the cat's presence here. The reason, hunting and animal advocates charge, is the state doesn't want to institute a management plan for the cats.
State wildlife officials have verified evidence of cougars in only six instances in more than a century, all in the Upper Peninsula and all within roughly the past two years. They admit there may be cougars here but say the big cats are likely limited to the north and are too few to constitute a prosperous, or breeding, population.
That infuriates true-believers and has helped foster talk of a cover-up by the state. The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy's Web site features a lengthy position paper titled: "Hiding the Cougar -- Denying the East its Apex Predator."
"Up until two, maybe three years ago, the Department of Natural Resources actively tried to cover up cougar evidence in Michigan," said Denise Noble, a Van Buren County Commissioner and founder of the Michigan Citizens for Cougar Recognition. "I think the reason has been that if there is an established breeding population here, then they would become responsible for managing it. And Michigan is flat-out broke."
Getting a handle on what a program would cost is tricky, but Florida has been actively managing its panther population -- panthers and cougars are the same species -- since 1995. Last year, the program's budget was $1.5 million, most of which was generated through the sale of specialized panther license plates.
DNR biologist Kristie Sitar has no shortage of stories but, for the sake of example, she chooses one that originated in the Upper Peninsula near Newberry a few months ago. A woman submitted a photo of a cougar that she insisted was taken near her home.
Sitar and other DNR officials investigated the matter by going to the site, searching for tracks (they came up empty) and then doing a thorough examination of the picture itself. After picking over the image and doing some online research, they determined someone had attempted an unsophisticated hoax.
"It turns out the picture had been taken of a cougar in Arizona," Sitar said. "It has also been cropped and the image was reversed."
Oddly enough, tales of trickery are fairly common. And when you throw in the number of wild animal sightings from people who truly believe they've seen a cougar but are mistaken, it provides plenty of ammunition for critics.
Along with the photo, which was taken in Detour in the extreme eastern point of the mainland U.P., cougar evidence confirmed by the DNR includes: three sets of tracks found in Delta and Marquette counties in 2008, as well as tracks found earlier this month in Gulliver, which is in southern Schoolcraft County.
Sitar and some cougar experts say that doesn't add up to hard evidence that Michigan has more than a handful of the big cats.
"Confirming one or two cougars in Michigan does not confirm there is a breeding population," said Mark Dowling, who tracks the animals' population as a co-founder of the Cougar Network, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that studies cougar ecology. "We are not convinced there is one."
The doubters' take
More than a century ago, cougars could be found throughout the United States. Dowling said development and hunting pushed the animal into the western third of the country over time. The last known cougar taken in Michigan was in 1906 near Newberry.
As recently as the 1960s, the cats could be shot as vermin in states like Colorado and Wyoming.
But the public began to see cougars in a different light in the 1970s with the proliferation of new environmental laws that helped protect the animals and bolster their numbers.
Beginning in the 1990s, breeding populations began cropping up in the Dakotas and cougar sightings have been increasingly reported between there and Chicago.
Part of the reason, Dowling said, is male cougars will roam along waterways in search of new territories with enough cover and food, so it's not improbable for them to have worked their way to Michigan through the Upper Peninsula.
But if they were here in sustainable numbers, he said, they would be hard to hide.
"They get hit by cars," he said. "They get hit by trains. They get ensnared in traps set out for coyotes and wolves. There are a thousand different ways these animals can be detected.
"Inevitably, they show themselves."
Dennis Fijalkowski tells a different version of the cougar's history in Michigan. The cats have been here all along, he said, spread throughout the state. A large portion of the population has survived in millions of remote acreage owned by hunting clubs.
And people like Roger City's Hempel and Sandy Nelson will tell you that cougars have shown themselves already -- all over the state. The www.savethecougar.org Web site catalogs cougar sightings from Michigan residents, and there is no shortage.
The site collected eight reports of cougar sightings in November from Oakland, Ingham, Schoolcraft, Mason and Charlevoix counties. One anonymous report from Oakland County is typical of the mix of wonder and worry that most of these reports convey.
"Came out of Milford High School after my daughter's diving meet. She saw it first in the headlights. I got out of the car for a closer look and moved my car several times to keep watching. It went under the concession stand and then ran a short distance. ... We are hunters, and I am positive about what we saw!"
Noble said the reasons for the animosity directed at the DNR over cougars have as much to do with rejection as the animals themselves.
"It's that the government is trying to tell somebody that what they know to be true is not true," she said. "They're saying 'You're lying and we don't believe you. We discredit you.' And that's the real problem."
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