Some folks might have snickered last month when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed Lower Peninsula’s “first” cougar in a century. It was photographed heading toward a parking lot at Rose Lake State Wildlife Area in Clinton County’s Bath Township.
Consider it revisionist news.
Reports of cougar sightings, which have continued to pour in since last month’s confirmation, aren’t new in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Publicly recognizing their accuracy, however, is uncharted territory.
In 2002, the DNR issued at least four permits to kill “a large feline” to Kalkaska landowners after reports of attacks on livestock, based on evidence that included sightings and verified tracks. Tim Webb, the DNR’s biologist, described the perpetrator at the time as a “large feral cat” weighing at least 100 pounds.
From 2000-03, Central Michigan University geneticist Bradley Swanson and wildlife biologist Pat Rusz, gathered nearly 300 samples from various animal scats in areas where cougar sightings were reported around the state. Despite using conservative criterion, 10 samples in eight counties turned out to be from cougars, and some came from Emmett, Roscommon, Presque Isle, and Alcona counties, all in the Lower Peninsula.
The American Midland Naturalist Journal, supported by the University of Notre Dame, published a peer-reviewed study on Swanson and Rusz’s findings in 2005, but the DNR took issue with the method of gathering the evidence and dismissed it.
When I called Kevin Swanson, the DNR wildlife specialist and Cougar Team member listed on the news release confirming the first cougar in the Lower Peninsula since the eradication of the species in the early 1900s, he said he did not know why the study was rejected.
Reasonably verifiable cougar sightings have been going on for years. A trail cam caught a clear image of one in Dickinson County in September 2015. Christi Hillaker of Mesick videotaped a large cat in February of 1997. The site had critical artifacts and objects of known size to compare it to so that figuring out its size was relatively easy. These was the same criteria used to determine the size of the cat in the Rose Lake Recreation Area, a decade later.
Bob Bishop, a video producer who has worked with crime shows such as “America’s Most Wanted” and produced countless documentaries, said he used a methodical approach consistent with understanding crime scene footage to validate several cougar videos. He measured several trees — one with an axe mark — and a telephone pole in front of the cat. Bishop said the only way to verify the size of an animal in a video is to take several pictures ensuring that the objects in the disputed video or imagery scale precisely; cameras can vary.
“The Hillaker cat would have been 28-32 inches tall at the shoulder,” Bishop said Thursday.
In the case of the Hillaker cat, there was no on-site visit from the DNR and it was considered to be a house cat by Ray Rustem, who was the head of the Endangered Species Program for the DNR when I asked him about the matter around the time the video was released.
Stuffed cat? No way
One of the most famous cougar pictures from the Lower Peninsula hung in the offices of the DNR near Mio for years. It was taken in 1997 in Alcona County on the property of then 83-year-old Larry Lippert, by his employee, Jim Deutsch. The DNR eventually declared it must be a stuffed cat — it wasn’t looking directly at the camera, apparently never having been taught to pose. Lippert was livid to be accused of fraud.
Unbeknownst to Lippert, DNR employee Larry Robinson saw a cougar 60 yards away from him in the middle of the road. He ran to the store and got a camera to photograph the tracks with his boot and a knife as a size reference. He then described his encounter in an email to John Hendrickson and Tim Reis on July 15, 1998.
The subject was “Cougar sighting.” The e-mail was leaked years ago.
“This is a note I absolutely dread writing…I had the terrible misfortune of seeing the Alcona Co. cougar … I figured I had to fess up eventually. What do I do to get the pictures and info into our division files without this getting out to the media? I really don’t want this to turn into another media event like the picture last year did.… By the way, the location is about 10 miles ‘as the cougar flies’ from the Lippert property where the picture was taken last summer.”
Another DNR employee, John Royer, found cougar tracks that same year within 12 miles of the allegedly stuffed cougar. Though a cougar skeptic, he commented on his find in an editorial in Michigan Out of Doors Magazine.
“I became pretty jaundiced about claimed sightings,” he said in the editorial. “... But, in 1998, while conducting a spring deer pellet survey near Hubbard Lake, in Club Country, I came upon a clear set of cougar tracks in the mud by a beaver flooding. I somewhat reluctantly reported them to the Atlanta Field Office, and discussed them with the DNR’s cat (bobcat) researcher, Richard Earl. I had joined the ranks of the misguided!
Swanson said he never heard of the Alcona County cougar, nor of Robinson’s communication. I sent it to him, and he asked me to send him a picture of the cougar track Robinson referred to.
Though he appeared uninformed about the history of these cougar sightings, Swanson seemed earnest as he said: “We would never, ever try to cover up anything. We are doing due diligence. We have no evidence to suggest that we have a breeding population in Michigan. We’re glad to work with those that think they do. We get a lot of pictures of domestic cats, of bobcats, coyotes. Every week the cougar team takes a look.”
Former DNR employee Mike Zuidema testified before the Senate in 2009 that he had taken over 1,100 anecdotal cougar reports, including those of lactating females and cubs. He was a solid skeptic until seeing his first cougar on March 10, 1981. After following the trail of evidence, he became convinced a small population resides at least in the Upper Peninsula.
Why the reluctance?
When a DNR conservation officer collected hair from the bumper of a car that had reportedly struck a cougar in Iron County, which borders Wisconsin in the Upper Peninsula, DNR biologist Rich Earle performed an analysis that confirmed the hair had come from a cougar. Nonetheless, it would be a decade before the DNR would admit the existence of cougars in the U.P. Earle threw out the hair, making it impossible for DNA analysis when the technology became available.
In Oakland County’s Lyon Township, resident Nate Rymarz told the Oakland Press in 2014 that he saw two cougars in his backyard. He photographed the tracks.
The list goes on.
It’s possible the DNR is reluctant to acknowledge a cougar population because it would be unprofitable, while working on a limited budget. It makes more fiscal sense to deny them as long as possible, or say they aren’t residents, but rather call them travelers passing through. Because if they’re only passing through, they aren’t our responsibility.
Another explanation is something known as the administrative lobotomy, which is when leaders develop an elitist approach that dismisses the concerns of ordinary people. I am the first to admit reporters are at risk for this condition. I’ve seen enough folks identify every turtle as a snapping turtle, to the point that I begin to presume anyone claiming they saw a snapping turtle just doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Enough cougar reports that turn out to be kitty cats could make someone jaded.
But it’s a mistake to have this attitude.
In the 1990s, I was turkey hunting in a swamp and saw my first black bear — in an area where the DNR said there were no bears. Like with cougars, the DNR had covered thousands of miles doing research but identified no bears in the area. I watched the bear meander for a good half hour from a safe perch. I thought the neighbor down the road would laugh at this, but he said he saw bear scat and tracks regularly.
As it turned out, around the same time Mart Williams, a convenience store owner, became convinced there were local bears that should be studied in the Cadillac area. He had tracked grizzlies in Montana and knew bears were here, but proving it was another matter. Williams pestered and the DNR brought in some live traps and agreed to tranquilize captured bears.
Williams brought the first six radio collars with his own money and spent countless hours following radio-collared bears, recently considered nonexistent in that part of the state. Joe Clugston, another local, devoted immeasurable hours to setting and baiting traps for research. Today the study stands as one of the most extensive bear monitoring efforts in Michigan.
Citizens can be significant assets to wildlife management. Yes, some can’t tell a snapping turtle from a snap dragon, but they often are reliable sources of information. Rather than demeaning or dismissing information like the Alcona County cougar, perhaps the DNR should consider a different approach by truly partnering with the citizens of the state to acknowledge a pattern of facts that predate the formation of the Cougar team in 2008:
There are — and have been — cougars in the Lower Peninsula.
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