LANSING, MICH. - A quick-with-their-camera resident of Bath Township in Clinton County has helped the Michigan Department of Natural Resources make a major discovery: the first cougar confirmed in the Lower Peninsula since the once statewide species was eradicated in the early 1900s.
A Haslett resident took a photograph of an animal from his vehicle in Bath Township near the DNR’s Rose Lake State Wildlife Area northeast of East Lansing on June 21. The man reported that he spotted the large cat in his headlights as it crossed a road. He captured the photograph as the cougar turned back from the road into an area of thick vegetation.
The photo was shared with DNR officials five days later. DNR biologist Chad Fedewa conducted a field inspection in the area where the photo was shot, including measuring a mailbox near the cat in the photo to help provide scale. A review by Fedewa and other biologists confirmed it's a cougar.
"We have no idea where the cat came from," said Ken Swanson, a DNR wildlife management specialist. "It could be a transient from out west. Or, this could also be an escaped pet, or (otherwise) released. It's very difficult for us to know."
Cougars were once native to Michigan, but, like wolves, were wiped out from the state by the early 1900s, Swanson said.
"It was driven by concern about predation of livestock and people concerned for their safety," he said.
The DNR confirmed wolves had returned to the Upper Peninsula in 2008, and has made 36 confirmations in total since then — though the same cat or cats may have been spotted multiple times, Swanson said.
The state agency receives "so many false reports" of cougar sightings from all over the state, on a weekly basis, he said.
"You want to be able to confirm it 100%, through photos, through scat, through fur," he said.
DNR officials have not been able to confirm a breeding population of cougars in Michigan, Swanson said. Genetic testing on tissue samples from two cougars poached in the U.P. in 2013 and 2016 shows the two animals likely came from a population found generally in South Dakota, Wyoming and northwest Nebraska.
A cougar hit by a car and killed in Connecticut in 2011 was determined to have come from the Black Hills area of South Dakota — more than 1,500 miles, six states and possibly a Canadian province away.
"It would have passed through the Chicago area, very urbanized areas," Swanson said.
"Cougars are a state-protected species in Michigan. But nationwide, they're not protected federally; they are a game species. But there are quite a lot of them out west. That's why we get these dispersers; because populations are doing well. Younger males are trying to find their own territory or their own mate."
DNR officials will stay on the lookout for the Bath Township cougar, but Swanson noted "it might be 50 or 100 miles from there by now; or it might still be right there." State officials hope to spot it again via trail cams or more eyewitness sightings.
Observations can be reported to DNR at mi.gov/eyesinthefield. Those finding physical evidence of a cougar such as scat, tracks or a carcass, are asked not to disturb the area and to keep the physical evidence intact. Any photos should be included with a submitted report.
The odds of encountering a cougar in the wild are very small, and attacks on humans are extremely rare. The DNR advises that anyone encountering a cougar:
- Face the animal and do not act submissive. Stand tall, wave your arms and talk in a loud voice.
- Never run from a cougar or other large carnivore. If children are present, pick them up so they cannot run.
- Do not crouch and get on all fours.
- If attacked, fight back with whatever is available. DO NOT play dead.
- Report the encounter to local authorities and the DNR as soon as possible.
To learn more about cougars, visit mi.gov/cougars.
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