The mountain lions of Michigan.
Though the mountain lion (Puma concolor) has been considered extirpated in Michigan since the early 1900s, sightings of the big cats have persisted in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Reports of mountain lions increased during the 1990s, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does acknowledge the existence of this species within the state. However, State officials continue to insist that the majority of these sightings involve former captive animals or misidentification of other species, rather than a wild population of mountain lions. The growing number of mountain lion sightings in recent years--by biologists, hunters, and other citizens--suggests that there may well be a small breeding population of the species in Michigan.
In 1984, while hunting on the Patowachie-Hannaville Indian Reservation fifteen miles west of the town of Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a Native American hunter spotted a mountain lion (Puma concolor)--also known as cougar or puma--while trying to spook some deer. The man quickly lifted his rifle and fired, wounding the cat, which responded by leaping ten feet into the air, and then running off with one leg flopping (Zuidema 1999). The hunter discovered bone fragments from the right front paw and proceeded to track the cat in light snow into a bog full of leatherleaf shrubs (Zuidema 1999). He collected the bone fragments and gave them to wildlife officials. Michael Zuidema, a retired Forester from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), sent the bone samples to a wildlife lab at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Fort Collins, where high resolution electrophoresis determined it was indeed from a mountain lion (Zuidema 1999).
The mountain lion was originally part of Michigan's native fauna, at the top of the food chain with the black bear (Ursus americanus), the wolf (Canis lupus), and the wolverine (Gulo gulo). By the late 1800s, however, only a few of the felids still survived in remote recesses of the Upper Peninsula (UP) (Zuidema 1999). The last recorded cougar killed in Michigan was in the UP in December of 1906, near the Tahquamenon River, in Luce County (Zuidema 1999).
By the early 1900s the species was listed as extirpated in Michigan (Manville 1948). It seems clear, though, that the Tahquamenon cat was not the last of its kind in the UP, or even the Lower Peninsula. Since the 1920s, there has been a steady stream of reports of the big cats, mostly dismissed by DNR officials (Zuidema 2000, pers. comm.). There are several reliable records of people seeing pumas in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including one documented record of a cougar from the Huron Mountains of Marquette County in 1937 (Manville 1948).
Credible sightings of the felids also date from the 1960s to the present. From 1962 to 1992 there were valid reports of cougars from every county in the UP except for Keweenaw (Evers 1994). Many of those reports, though, were not verified by DNR officials (Minzey 2000, pers. comm.). Frequently, people who claim to have spotted a large felid either inform the DNR too long after the a sighting or sign, or the supposed cat turns out to be another large mammal, such as a deer or wolf (Minzey 2000, pets. comm.). In addition, a large number of reported puma sightings are in areas where wolves are known residents (Minzey 2000, pers. comm.).
Recent sightings in the Upper Peninsula
There is, however, conclusive evidence of mountain lions in Michigan. On Memorial Day in 1998, a puma was photographed on the grounds of Thistledowne, a Bed & Breakfast establishment near the town of Gulliver in southern Schoolcraft County (Hughes 2000, pers. comm.) (Figure 1). Three fuzzy photographs through a plate-glass window were taken of the cougar as it stood outside in the yard by the gazebo along the sand dunes. The animal then ran into the woods on the shore of Seul Choix Point, on Lake Michigan (McCarthy 2001, pers. comm.). Two of the photographs show the unmistakable outline of a large felid's lithe body and rounded head.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Seul Choix Point is a sandy spit of land in southern Schoolcraft County stretching out from the bay into Lake Michigan (Figure 2). In 2000, there were several sightings of cougars on the Point (Bowman 2000, pers. comm.). In 1997 or 1998, hunters discovered a dead deer covered up with leaves in the forests on Seul Choix Point, with scrapes approximately five feet long--too long for the reach of bobcat covering its kill (Bowman 2000, pers. comm.). (Typically, cougars and some other large cats, including bobcats, cover their kills with leaves to hide them from scavengers.)
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Seul Choix Point is one of the areas where the existence of cougars was irrefutably demonstrated in the UP, through the efforts of an independent organization not affiliated with the Michigan DNR (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). Dr. Patrick Rusz, the Director of Wildlife Programs for the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation, a non-profit research organization, conducted field studies in areas of the state where there have been multiple reliable sightings of cougars (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). Once a week between May 5, 2001, and June 1, 2001, Dr. Rusz and his team conducted research along a 33-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline, including the sand dunes of Seul Choix Point (MWHF 2001a). The team discovered cougar tracks in the eastern half of the study area each week (Figure 3), with most of the tracks confined to a four-mile long strip of dunes (MWHF 2001a).
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
Where the tracks were most numerous, the crew found six distinct locations where deer had been killed and dragged away. In each case, the deer were killed within 40 feet of a dune crest with no sign of a chase (MWHF 2001a). There was suggestive evidence of nine cougar-killed deer dragged up the dunes, but only six deer carcasses were conclusively identified (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). The sand dunes and beaches along the lake shoreline also turned out to be a gigantic natural litter box where it was unexpectedly easy to find cougar droppings (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.).
Rusz and his team collected dozens of scat samples in the shoreline dunes covered in a manner typical of pumas (MWHF 2001a). Eight feces samples were sent to Wyoming's Department of Game and Fish forensics laboratory in Laramie. The results arrived in late September 2001, and the lab concluded there was DNA evidence confirming the existence of at least two cougars in the Seul Choix area (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.).
In early 2001, the Foundation team also received a one-year-old, 10.5 inch scat from a woman in the town of Hancock, on Lake Superior's Keweenaw Peninsula in Houghton County. This sample was also sent to the Wyoming lab and confirmed to be from a puma (MWHF 2001a). Rusz's team also verified mountain lion tracks on the Stonington Peninsula of Delta County along Lake Michigan, plus several possible cougar scats (MWHF 2001a). By the late fall of 2001, the Foundation confirmed the presence of at least seven pumas through the verification of scat, tracks and deer kills at six sites scattered over the Upper and Lower Peninsulas (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). Such an abundance of evidence confirms that the Seul Choix cats are not just transients passing through the area, but represent a handful of resident, reproducing cougars indigenous to the UP.
Although most cougar reports come from the south central Upper Peninsula where deer densities are the highest, sightings have been reported from virtually every county in the UP (Zuidema 2000, pers. comm.). Three elderly trappers living in Delta and Menominee Counties insisted they saw cougars occasionally in the central UP over the past fifty years (Zuidema 2000, pers. comm.). One trapper reported trapping and shooting a female cougar in 1964, describing it as being a rack of bones weighing about 60 pounds which appeared to have been nursing (Zuidema 1999).
Another trapper allegedly caught a cougar in a trap five miles south of Escanaba, but the cat pulled the stake out and escaped (Zuidema 2000, pers. comm.). Zuidema collected over 600 reports of sightings or signs of mountain lions, dating back to the 1930s. Prior to the confirmation of Puma concolor in the UP, there were scores of sightings of mother pumas with young, indicating the likelihood of localized breeding populations (Zuidema 2000, pers. comm.).
There has also been an increase of puma reports filed with the DNR in recent decades, especially in the 1990s. On average, the DNR receives approximately one hundred cougar reports a year, but these do not include verified sightings or signs (Wagner 2000). In spite of Rusz' confirmation of some wild pumas in the UP, some DNR biologists remain skeptical that very many of the big cats reside as wild residents in the state (Robinson 2000, pers. comm.). Of the approximately 750,000 licensed hunters in Michigan, few have reported seeing the cats. There have not been any identifiable prints, road kills, or legitimate plaster casts of tracks (Robinson 2000, pers. comm.).
In August and September 2001, the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation team searched Stonington Peninsula in Delta County of the UP on three occasions and discovered additional tracks that were verified to be cougar. The team also discovered some old scats on the peninsula that are still awaiting conclusive DNA analysis (MWHF 2001a).
The 60,000-acre Porcupine Mountains State Park, bordering Lake Superior in Ontonagon County, is another area of the UP where there has been some evidence of pumas over the past few decades. The Park was spared the logger's ax and contains the largest stand of old-growth forests between the Mississippi River and the Adirondacks. Some of the maples in the Park measure three feet in diameter.
Sightings of cougars within or near the Park have been recorded in past years. In 1997 a group of deer hunters found a deer carcass cached in a tree (Sprague 2001, pers. comm.). (The Park does allow white-tailed deer hunting.) There are also earlier records of pumas in the Porcupine Mountains. In 1970, a former assistant park manager discovered cougar tracks embedded in a clay hiking trail in the Park, which had been recently soaked by rain (LaPointe 1977).
Another area with persistent mountain lion sightings is the Huron Mountains of Marquette County east of Porcupine Mountains State Park. Like the Porcupine Mountains, the Huron hills have significant stands of old-growth cedar forests and high deer densities (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). There have been persistent sightings in or along a 56,000-acre area within the mountains that includes the Huron Mountain Club and adjacent private property (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). Access to the 28,000-acre Club is very restricted, and Club members have reported seeing cougars in the last few years. Moose and wolves, supposedly extirpated from the state in the early 1900s, were also reported there in every decade of the 1900s (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.).
South and east of the Huron Mountains lies the Ottawa National Forest, containing over 1.7 million acres of spruce, aspen, and isolated stands of old-growth white pine and hemlock. Ottawa contains three wilderness areas totaling over 50,000 acres, and one area, the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness, covers 14,193 acres with steep rugged gorges up to 300 feet deep and nearly a mile wide (USFS 2000). There have also been several puma reports within the 18,327-acre Sylvania Wilderness, lying within eastern Gogebic County and bordering northern Wisconsin.
In fact, northern Wisconsin and the UP represent one continuous eco-system, with the UP containing more unsettled wilderness. Any lions in this region would need to be managed as one population. Abundant deer, wolves, black bears and fishers already inhabit these rugged outcroppings of the Canadian Shield, and undoubtedly, some pumas are also present.
The U.S. Forest Service typically receives two or three reports of cougars a year in the Ottawa National Forest of Gogebic County (Edde 2000, pers. comm.). Three recent records have been deemed as credible (Edde 2000, pets. comm.). The first report was on November 16, 1998, when a hunter saw a mountain lion feeding on a deer gut pile not far from the town of Ironwood. The second incident, which took place on April 16, 2000, involved a man who reported seeing a cougar chasing a rabbit through his yard, five miles south and east of the town of Wakefield. In the third incident on June 6, 2000, a man from Ironwood spotted a puma crossing Fisher Road (Edde 2000, pers. comm.). A trapper who catches a lot of bobcats is convinced cougars are in the Bessemer area (Edde 2000, pers. comm.).
Recent sightings in the Lower Peninsula
Reports are even coming from the Lower Peninsula. On one occasion, while setting up baits for black bears in Huron National Forest in Alcona County 25 miles west of Lake Huron, a DNR wildlife biologist reported a puma walking on a narrow forest path (Robinson 2000, pers. comm.). He was approximately 60 yards away from the cat, and discovered tracks after it disappeared. It was unclear, however, whether this cat was actually a wild puma or an escaped/released captive.
Based on the density of reports, there is growing evidence of a resident cougar population in northeastern Lower Michigan between the towns of Mio and Rogers City and north to Cheboygan; in Emmet County near Cross Village; and between Cadillac and Traverse City in the northwest (MWHF 2001a). Two "hotspots" for puma reports are the Black Lake region of Presque Isle and Cheboygan counties and the Deadstream Swamp region of northern Missaukee County (Rusz 2001). The Deadstream Swamp is one of the most remote areas in the Lower Peninsula and is largely roadless. DNR foresters have found tracks that appeared to be cougar in the Deadstream (Rusz 2001).
The DNR also has filed some credible reports from the Lower Peninsula. In southern Missaukee County, not far from Cadillac, there was a report of tracks in late 1999. A conservation officer went out to investigate, and reportedly saw the big cat during deer season (Perez 2000, pers. comm.). There are also several other unconfirmed sightings by DNR biologists of pumas in the area (Perez 2000, pers. comm.). Parts of southern Missaukee County lies within the Pere Marquette State Forest, which connects to the much larger Manistee National Forest in the county's southwest corner. Such intact habitat could provide a forested peninsula for juvenile cougars leaving their mothers' home ranges and entering new territories, assuming that there is a very small breeding population.
Oscoda County to the west consists of state or federal owned woodlands, locally called the Club Country (Robinson 2000, pers. comm.). Nearly all the old-growth trees on the rather poor, unproductive soils of the Club Country were clear-cut by the early 1900s including northern red oak (Robinson 2000, pers. comm.). Much of the remaining private land in the region was bought in the 1940s by wealthy landowners who created large exclusive hunting reserves, but who do not live in the area (Robinson 2000, pets. comm.). On September 13, 1997, the Detroit Free Press newspaper published a photograph of a cougar reportedly about 10 miles from where Robinson saw his cat in Alcona County. The photo clearly showed a cougar lying in ferns and grass.
Further north on the Lower Peninsula, Rusz's research team also appears to have verified the existence of mountain lions. In July 2001, the Foundation team documented a 3.5 inch cougar track on Dale Willey's horse ranch just north of the town of Tower in the Black River Swamp region of Mackinaw State Forest (MWHF 2001a). Willey also claimed to have seen a cougar in early July 2001, and found evidence that a puma had dragged off a newborn colt a couple days later (MWHF 2001a).
On Rusz's suggestion, Willey agreed to bulldoze a half-mile long road along the north edge of his 70-acre pasture, and check it from tracks every other day. On the fourteenth day, he found a suspected set of cat tracks, which were photographed three days later and confirmed to be cougar by retired biologist Harley Shaw, a cougar researcher from Arizona (MWHF 2001a).
In actual fact, the existence of cougars in the wilds of the Lower Peninsula had already been confirmed. In February 1997, Christi Hillaker captured a puma on video-tape as it walked through woods at the edge of her yard near the town of Mesick, in Wexford County. Her video clearly showed all the distinguishing characteristics of mountain lions, including the long tail (MWHF 2001b). A few hours after the incident, her husband measured the tracks at an enormous four and a half inches in diameter. Rusz later reviewed the videotape, measuring the cat's size by a tree it passed in the background, and determined that it reached at least 28 inches at the shoulders: clearly cougar-sized. He also confirmed the tracks to be those of a puma (MWHF 2001b).
Mesick sits on the northern boundary of Manistee National Forest, and in 2000-2001 there were several reports of lions along the Big Manistee River northeast of Mesick in southern Kalkaska County (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). Another credible report from January 1996 came from near the town of Meauwataka, about five miles from Mesick. Wildlife Biologist Marci Johnson, who previously had worked on a cougar project in Colorado, saw a puma near town and recorded a great number of tracks in the snow (MWHF 2001a).
Future protection in Michigan
The Michigan mountain lion was listed as a state protected species in the 1980s, off-limits to hunting (Zuidema 2000, pers. comm.). Such protection has undoubtedly allowed the state's residual resident pumas to stage a very modest comeback. In fact, finding evidence of cougars was considered the easy part--after only two days in the field the researchers found deer carcasses, scat, and tracks (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). It has been difficult, however, to build a case for wild Puma concolor, as skeptics have believed that any confirmed sightings were of former captive animals (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.).
The question now is this: Will the DNR now seek to embrace the few attested cougars as natives, or will it continue to write them off as exotics? The lessons gained from Florida's experience with the Florida panther are instructive. Until the 1970s, that state dismissed recurring reports, and even isolated mortalities, of that remnant cougar population as being escaped captives or descendants of captives (Rusz 2001, pers. comm.). As in Michigan, it took the persistent efforts of independent researchers and hunters to uncover a genuine endemic population of native cougars in Florida. If Michigan's Department of Natural Resources follows Florida's example and embraces this top predator as part of the state's native fauna along with black bears and wolves, this most adaptable of all wild cats in the Western Hemisphere just might find the state's rugged wilderness an inviting home again.
Bowman, G. 2000. Private businessman and eyewitness, Gulliver, MI: pers. comm.
Edde, J. 2000. Wildlife Biologist, Ottawa National Forest, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Bessemer, MI: pers. comm.
Evers, D.C., ed. 1994. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of Michigan. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Hughes, B. 2000. Owner, Thistledowne Bed-N-Breakfast, Gulliver MI: pers. comm.
LaPointe, D. 1977. The Cat That Isn't. Michigan Natural Resources Magazine November/December.
Manville, R.H. 1948. The Vertebrate Fauna of the Huron Mountains, Michigan. American Midland Naturalist 39(3): 615-640.
McCarthy, J. 2001. Retired police officer and eyewitness with photographs, Ann Arbor, MI: pers. comm.
Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation (MWHF). 2001a. Foundation Study Confirms Cougar in Michigan. The Wildlife Volunteer November/December: 4-5.
Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation (MWHG). 2001b. Cougar Caught on Video. The Wildlife Volunteer September/ October: 3.
Minzey, T. 2000. Wildlife Supervisor, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Cadillac, MI: pers. comm.
Ottawa National Forest. 2000. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/ottawa/.
Perez, R. 2000. Management Units Supervisor, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Saginaw Bay, MI: pers. comm.
Robinson, L. 2000. Wildlife Biologist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Mio, MI: pers. comm.
Rusz. P. 2001. Director of Wildlife Programs, Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation, Bath, MI: pers. comm.
Rusz, P. 2001. The Cougar in Michigan: Sightings and Related Information. Bengal Wildlife Center Technical Publication, February, 63 pp. Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation, Bath.
Sprague, B. 2001. Park Naturalist, Porcupine Mountain State Park, White Pine, MI: pers. comm.
The Detroit Free Press. September 13, 1997. Cougar photograph.
Zuidema, M. 2000. Retired silviculturist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Escanaba, MI:: pers. comm.
Zuidema, M. 1999. The Secretive Cougar. Upper Michigan Outdoor Journal 1(3): 2-5.
Kirk Johnson International Ecological Partnerships, P.O. Box 40323, Grand Junction CO 81504 USA firstname.lastname@example.org