MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) — Cougars are native to Michigan, but it’s likely you’ve never seen one or even a trace left behind. They are now listed as endangered.
In 2008, the Michigan Department of Resources formed a team to confirm and monitor sightings of cougars, DNR large carnivore specialist Cody Norton explained.
Cougars were once legal to hunt in Michigan.
“Our last legally harvested cougar was back in 1906 near Newberry. After that, it was pretty quiet in the state,” Norton told WJMN, WOOD TV8’s Marquette sister station. “But in the late ’90s, early 2000s, we started having more, some reports come up that look like, ‘Hey, this might be consistent with cougar’ — either signs or photographs. But the department didn’t have a protocol in place for how to investigate those or determine whether they were real or not and we didn’t necessarily have people with the expertise to do it, so in 2008, the department formed a cougar team.”
Brian Roell, a DNR wildlife biologist, says biologists on the team are spread throughout the state because sightings are reported from all over.
“What we do is we look independently at the evidence presented to us and basically decide whether that is a cougar or not,” Roell asid. “Some of the pictures are very obvious where you’re like, ‘OK, that’s a cougar. That’s great.’ Those are the easy ones. But surprisingly, we get a lot of fuzzy pictures, too, that maybe aren’t as clear and we get a lot of other animals as well that are thought to be cougars, from bobcats to dogs to domestic cats. It’s kind of all over the board.”
All confirmed cougar sightings in the Upper Peninsula have been young males so far. Biologists say they have not seen any signs of breeding.
“I think what’s really interesting is we don’t believe we have a cougar population here. We have no record of any females and no record of any reproduction, but one of the things that’s kind of interesting and cool about cougars showing up here in Michigan is they’re likely from the South Dakota population of cougars, which is the closest population of cougars to Michigan,” Kristie Sitar, another DNR wildlife biologist, said. “So they’re likely from South Dakota and they’re coming through here. It tends to be males. All the instances when we’ve either had a cougar in hand from an illegal harvest or been able to tell from the photograph or the video the sex of the animal, they’ve always been males.”
Shelby Adams, a DNR wildlife biologist, said that all but one of the confirmed sightings have been in the Upper Peninsula.
The only confirmed cougar sighting in the Lower Peninsula was in the Southern region.
“There’s a lot of interest in the northern Lower in particular about, especially during the winter, if we get ice across the water and cougars were able to sort of walk across that ice bridge … we’d want to know if they’re present or not,” Adams said. “So we’re very interested in the potential being in that area. There’s people that report that they see them but so far we have not had any evidence that there have been any cougars in the northern Lower at this time.”
To confirm sightings, there has to be evidence for DNR staff to check, like pictures, tracks or scat.
“In order to confirm something, we do have to have that verifiable evidence and that’s just because we need it to be able to stand up and hold up some weight of what we’re saying is present or not. So we are scientists. We are going to always be looking. If we’re saying somethings there, we want to know that we have proof that it’s there,” Adams said. “And what we’ve seen from the U.P. is an excellent example: When cougars are somewhere, there is evidence.”
An increase in the use of trail cameras and smartphones in recent years has helped make confirming sightings easier.
“If you look back closer to 2008, when the team was formed, a lot of our signs that we were going off of or investigating were tracks. Somebody might find a track in the middle of the woods. We might ask them to put a 5-gallon bucket upside down over it so it doesn’t get rained on or swept by the wind or melted out if it’s in the snow,” Norton described. “And then somebody had to try to go and get a glimpse of that track before it disappeared.”
Roell said confirmed sightings get added to a database for other researchers to look at.
“We’re looking at the locations where cougars are popping up and we’re using that data to look at occupancy and to look at habitat analysis to see where in the U.P. is suitable for a cougar to live,” said Roell.
Most recently, researchers from the State University of New York Campfire Program in Wildlife Conservation used some of the data to look at cougar movement in the Great Lakes region overall. State University of New York in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry Professor Jerrold Belant said his team only used sightings that are confirmed by state resource agencies, like the DNR.
“From the period of 2010 until 2020, overall combined across the three-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, 180 sightings were used in the analysis,” Belant explained.
Mariela Gantchoff, a post-doctoral research associate at the State University of New York, said 40 of the sightings were from the U.P.
“What we’re doing is basically trying to identify what sort of areas are cougars occurring, what areas are they being sighted,” Gantchoff said. “And to do that we look at, is it a natural area? Is it an urban area? Is there elevation? Is it a flat area? Is it a rugged area? How far is it close or far from water? And so far what we’re seeing is that they are occurring more in natural areas — so forests, shrublands, grasslands and in areas that are very rugged. So they seem to prefer not flat areas but areas with some sort of slope and they also like areas that have a lot of vegetation growth and productivity and likely prey even though that can vary.”
Belant said males do tend to be the first to move into an area in recolonization, but that it can take decades or more time.
“The process of a recolonizing large carnivore is fascinating both from an ecological perspective because they have such a strong impact on the ecosystem but also … on society,” Gantchoff said. “That people have very strong feelings about large carnivores, so it’s always important to know where they are and the potential for conflict.”
Belant and Gantchoff analyzed data from the last 10 years of reported sightings. Gantchoff said continued analysis will be necessary because recolonization is a process. If, eventually, they find evidence of reproduction, then they will need to reassess because established animals tend to prefer different areas than dispersing animals.