By LOGAN CLARK
Capital News Service
LANSING — Don’t call it a comeback. Call it a potential comeback.
Habitat is suitable for cougars to recolonize the Upper Great Lakes region, according to researchers at Michigan Technological University.
Their study says that cougars were driven out of the Midwest by the early 20th century. Since then, they have persisted only in the West.
But the western population has been increasing, pushing the cats to expand to the east, the study reports.
This population increase is likely due to more prey availability and the ban on predator bounties and poisoning in the 1960s and 1970s, said one of the authors, Shawn O’Neil, a doctoral student who studies wildlife spatial ecology.
Researchers focused on Michigan and Wisconsin, and extended a model previously developed by researchers at the Cougar Network, a nonprofit organization that studies the species.
“For the most part, as a society, we’ve moved from trying to control and eradicate apex predators to trying to coexist,” O’Neil said.
O’Neil also credits the expansion to the animals’ instinct to avoid inbreeding. They disperse long distances in search of suitable habitat and new gene pools, he said.
One cougar was even thought to have traveled more than 1,000 miles from South Dakota to Connecticut, said the study.
O’Neil and his colleagues demonstrated that suitable habitat exists in the Upper Great Lakes by assessing the region’s capacity to support them. That capacity includes food availability and physical characteristics of the landscape. Among those characteristics are elevation, vegetation, distance to water and roads and their ability to avoid people.
After comparing results with sightings confirmed by the Department of Natural Resources in Michigan and Wisconsin, researchers estimated that the study area could support more than 500 cougars.
That may sound good for cougars, but if recolonization does happen it will undoubtedly bring political and cultural problems similar to that of the wolf.
That’s according to Adrian Wydeven, a retired wildlife specialist from the Wisconsin DNR who has long studied cougars and other large carnivores.
Wydeven said he expects fairly negative attitudes from farmers and hunters, adding that people seem to fear cougars more than wolves or bears.
“It may be that if recolonization occurs slowly, it will receive better support, but under current conditions, a rapidly growing cougar population would raise concerns,” he said.
O’Neil said that another debate over using hunting to manage carnivores could well be around the corner.
“Several states have cougars living right next to major population centers, and this hasn’t seemed to generate the same divisiveness as wolves have,” he said. “So maybe there is greater capacity for social acceptance.”
A large portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is also suitable for cougars, despite the lack of confirmed sightings in this century, but according to Wydeven, cats will have a harder time than in the U.P.
“My guess is that it will be decades and maybe as much as a century or more before breeding populations of cougars establish in the Lower Peninsula, he said.
The Michigan DNR has started confirming cougar sightings only since 2008. None of those confirmations was a female. As a result, the department’s official stance is that there is no breeding going on in the state, according to Kevin Swanson, its large carnivore specialist.
The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy disagrees. The organization, based in Bath, restores and establishes wildlife habitat.
Patrick Rusz, director of the group’s wildlife programs, said breeding pairs of cougars never left the Great Lakes.
Rusz has been tracking Michigan cougars for more than a decade. He is critical of how state officials have handled cougar sightings, pointing out that the department didn’t confirm any sightings until 2008, but has confirmed 28 sightings since.
Rusz testified before the Michigan Senate in 2009 that he has found plenty of evidence of cougar settlement in both peninsulas.
Rusz said he believes that the DNR ignores such evidence because it doesn’t want to manage another endangered species. And he said the department should recognize their presence and begin managing for it.
The department has put together a cougar team of biologists to keep up with the increasing sightings on both the Upper and Lower peninsulas.
The DNR’s Swanson said the team has yet to find evidence of a breeding population in the state.
Logan Clark writes for Great Lakes Echo.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
“Habitat Capacity for Cougar Recolonization in the Upper Great Lakes Region” available at
By LOGAN CLARK