Does an "Extinct" Cat Prowl in Michigan?

Experts and amateurs puzzle over an elusive big cat

10-01-2003 // Bob Butz

SOMETHING WAS LURKING in the midnight woods surrounding a quiet farm in Kalkaska County, Michigan, in 2002. One by one, chickens turned up missing. Then the family dog, a Great Pyrenees, was bloodied behind the barn by something that came out of the woods, maybe a pack of coyotes or wild dogs, a bobcat or bear. The first clue to the marauding animal's identity materialized one foggy morning when area resident Larry Strouss discovered a set of bloody claw marks on his mule after it had spent a night in the pasture. His son, Alan, got a fleeting glimpse of the attacker—a huge, long-tailed, catlike creature—before it quickly disappeared among distant trees.

A week later, on a neighboring farm, the mysterious predator tried to tackle a full-grown quarter horse, leaving telltale claw marks high on the horse's back. The animal also left behind palm-sized pugmarks in the dirt surrounding the corral. Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologist Tim Webb told local press the tracks were those of a "large feral cat" that probably exceeded 100 pounds. That could mean only one thing: a cougar, a.k.a. puma and mountain lion.

Whatever you call the cat, it is a name that MDNR spokespeople have been reluctant to utter in public. The cougar has been considered officially extinct in Michigan since 1906, although the animal has been spotted there with amazing frequency over the years. Recently, a multi-year study by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, a private conservation group, purported to have produced DNA evidence that the big cat still exists in Michigan as a small breeding population. This hypothesis also is based on 50-some years of reported sightings from biologists, forestry workers, experienced woodsmen and even MDNR employees.

So far, MDNR has ignored conservancy evidence, which worries local conservationists who believe the Michigan cougar, as a state-listed endangered species, should be better protected. The cougar is also federally listed in the state's Lower Peninsula, although not in the Upper Peninsula. The Michigan cougar controversy may well be a preview of what lies ahead for other states if suspected cougar populations materialize in other areas in the East.

Cougars once ranged from Canada to southern South America, the widest north-south distribution of any terrestrial mammal except humans. But decades of hunting, trapping and poisoning routed the animals from much of their U.S. range. Biologists concluded years ago that the cats were extinct in the East. But rumors of cougars in states from Maine to Minnesota and down to Florida suggested that conclusion might be wrong. When researchers in the 1970s discovered a remnant population of cougars in Florida, where the animals are called panthers, hope rose that sightings of cougars elsewhere in the East also might represent remnant populations. Since then, conservationists have maintained an intensive effort to protect the Florida panther and its habitat, while evidence of cougars elsewhere has been largely ignored.

One such place is Michigan. A cougar trapped by four men in Chippewa County in December 1906 was the last Michigan cougar reported killed. In the 1920s, state biologists declared the species extinct.

Nevertheless, researchers studying cougar sightings during the past half century concluded that up to 100 credible reports came in yearly during that time. Many of these encounters, although backed by photographs, video footage and plaster casts of tracks, were dismissed by professionals as escaped or illegally released pets.

Given state reluctance to investigate cougar sightings, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy stepped in and in 1998 launched a multi-year cougar study of its own. The conservancy's initial work depended mostly on indirect proof, such as credible sightings and tracks. Patrick Rusz, the conservancy's director of wildlife programs, compiled a 63-page report that detailed the most compelling physical evidence collected throughout Michigan to date. With a handful of volunteers, he used that information to narrow down likely search areas. (His paper, "The Cougar in Michigan: Sightings and Related Information," can be viewed at www.mwhf.org.) Then, he led a field study to collect suspected cougar fecal samples for DNA testing. Rusz sent dozens of scats collected across three counties to the Wyoming Game and Fish Laboratory in Laramie, which declared that they came from "an animal in the Feline Family, most probably mountain lion."

MDNR's reaction was "so what?" Officials leaned on the theory that Michigan cougars are free-roaming former pets or stray wild animals from elsewhere—anything but an established, breeding cougar colony. "Our position, very simply and very clearly, is this," says Brad Wurfel, MDNR press secretary. "We acknowledge that there may be some individual cougars roaming the state's wild, and perhaps not-so-wild, areas. However, we have no physical proof of a viable resident cougar population."

The officials' response to the conservancy's work is based partly on their traditional and collective doubts and partly on the fact that "The Cougar in Michigan" was not reviewed by other scientists before publication. In scientific circles, lack of such peer review can be damning. "Anyone can say or publish anything they want, call it anything they want," Mike DeCapita, endangered species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in East Lansing, recently told a reporter for Michigan Out-of-Doors. "Doing so does not make it science."

Rusz responds that "The Cougar in Michigan," designed only to outline and organize the most compelling physical evidence, was never intended for peer review. "Our peer-review report will be ready soon," Rusz says. "We now have Central Michigan University running a new and more comprehensive round of DNA testing and, not surprisingly, the results are coming up the same. The first round of tests verified DNA evidence of cougars spread over seven more counties in Upper and Lower Michigan."

Rusz is convinced that these data indicate that a small remnant cougar population survives in Michigan. It is impossible, he says, that former pet cougars are turning up in every one of his study areas. If the animals were all escaped pets, they should turn up randomly around the state. Instead, sightings cluster in certain specific areas, the same areas where they have been clustering for decades.

MDNR is not alone in interpreting cougar sightings as artifacts of former pets. In an article titled "The Eastern Cougar: A Management Failure?" in the spring 2002 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin, James E. Cardoza and Susan A. Langlois noted reports of at least 15 cougar specimens killed and examined in the East north of Florida since 1950. Biologists identified most as "escapees of captive origin," although a few could not be determined conclusively as either pets or wild.

Among the more mysterious of these was an 8-pound cougar kitten struck and killed by a motorist in June 1997 in Floyd County, Kentucky. The carcass was turned over to state wildlife department officers, who found various telltale signs that it had been a wild cougar—all claws intact, no tattoos or tags, no collar. Even so, the examiners concluded the animal was probably from domesticated stock.

A similar case occurred in Randolph County, Illinois, in July 2002, when the carcass of a 110-pound male puma turned up on railroad tracks, apparently killed by a train. A necropsy showed that the puma was in good health, had all its claws and lacked other signs consistent with captive cougars. Officials concluded that the cat, though believed wild, was a lone transient.

"You couldn't make this up," says the stymied Rusz. "There are some people who, no matter what the evidence, are never going to believe. Unfortunately, some of these people are in charge of managing our wildlife resources."

In 2002, following the livestock attacks in the Kalkaska County, MDNR itself sought to capture the suspected cougar by setting up a bear-sized live-trap. This action appealed to the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy because of the important evidence it might produce. But the state also initiated a policy that left the conservancy less enthusiastic, giving residents who suffered livestock losses the right to kill the predator, officially described as a "large feral cat."

The conservancy's executive director, Dennis Fijalkowski, was incredulous: "Here we have proof from DNA and other evidence that cougars are still around 100 years after they were thought to have been wiped out, and the first thing the DNR wants to do when it comes across a cougar sighting it can't ignore is kill it?"

No large cat, feral or otherwise, was captured or killed. The midnight attacks simply stopped. MDNR persists in denying that Michigan harbors a breeding population of cougars. Meanwhile, the conservancy continues its work, building up more cougar-DNA evidence in a growing number of counties.

For Rusz, the case has been made. "The proof is already there," he says, "and speaks for itself."

Bob Butz, a Michigan writer, at the time this article was printed was working on a book about the eastern cougar. Beast of Never, Cat of God was scheduled for release in fall 2004.

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