By LIAM TIERNEY
Capital News Service
LANSING — Everybody knows that there aren’t any cougars in Michigan. These big cats were hunted to extinction in the state in the early 1900s and despite 34 recent sightings reported in the Upper Peninsula, it’s safe to say that the cats aren’t back to stay yet.
According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), that’s true.
“They were found in most of Michigan at one time,” said DNR wildlife management specialist Kevin Swanson. “In the early 1900s they were being extirpated. The last cougar harvested in Michigan was in Newberry in 1906.”
Swanson said that the 34 confirmed sightings doesn’t mean 34 separate animals. According to the DNR, 23 of these sightings were photos, eight were tracks, one was video and animal waste and the final two were carcasses. The most recent carcass, discovered in a snare Feb. 1 by conservation officers four miles north of Iron Mountain in Breitung Township in Dickinson County. The other was poached in 2013 by a hunter in Schoolcraft County.
The DNR says it plans to continue enforcing the legal protection that the cougars are given by the Michigan Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harming, capturing or harassing cougars.
Some people, however, have a bone to pick with the DNR about the status of the cougar in Michigan. One of these people is wildlife biologist Patrick Rusz of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath.
“In 2000 I was given $5,000 to go to the UP and disprove the rumor that there were cougars living there,” said Rusz. “I found one in two days.”
Rusz says that he believes that cougars have been in the state all along.
In 1907, one year after the DNR stated that the last cougar was harvested in Michigan, the Sault St. Marie Evening News reported on a cougar killed in a wolf trap in Chippewa County,
In 1948, R.H. Manville, a taxonomist, reported several sightings by “reliable people.”
In 1966, Francis Opolka, a DNR officer, observed a cougar in Delta County. Plaster casts of the animal’s tracks were verified by the University of Michigan as “that of a large cat.”
In 1984, blood-covered bone fragments were recovered from a cougar shot in Menominee County. The sample was sent to Colorado State University, where it was determined to have a “positive identity to a mountain lion.”
These instances were recorded in “Milestones of the History of Cougars in Michigan,” a document by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. If reputable sources, and even DNR officers, continued seeing cougars, then why did the DNR continue to state that they were extinct in the state, even up to a February 2016 interview with the Great Lakes Echo?
Simply put, Rusz says he believes that the DNR denies the presence of the cougar in the state for selfish reasons.
In the 1960s, the Florida DNR discovered a population of panthers (cougars) living in the wetlands in the southern half of the state. The federal government gave it $50 million with which to buy land and educate the public to protect the animals, but the wetlands bought by the Florida agency began to restrict expansions on other projects such as airports.
When the Michigan DNR asked for a similar grant to investigate the cougars that people were still seeing in the state, the feds said no.
“The cougar went from being a potential cash cow to a financial albatross.” said Rusz.
From that point forward, Rusz says, the DNR continued claiming that cougars were an extirpated species. Cougar sighting were debunked as escaped pets and the people who reported them became drunken Yoopers. It wasn’t until the digital age, when many people started having camera phones and trail cameras to catch these animals in action, that the DNR changed its stance.
“The escaped pet theory wasn’t gonna fly anymore. They needed a new excuse. That’s when they started saying these animals were transients,” Rusz said.
“The ability of the Internet to spread erroneous information is mind-blowing. I’m sure there are suits (officials) that believe this cougar nonsense but the higher ups are just maintaining the charade,” he said.
“Ask your readers this question. According to the DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were no cougar sightings in 102 years. Not a single confirmation between 1906 and 2008. Since 2008 they’ve confirmed 34. They’re telling you that the state was worked over so well by hunters and trappers that they killed every animal,” Rusz said.
“Do you believe that?”
By LIAM TIERNEY