The number of cougars spotted in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has increased over the years. But obstacles to the eastern migration of big cats have so far prevented them from establishing breeding populations here.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has confirmed 11 cougar sightings in the UP so far this year, down slightly from a peak of 15 sightings last year, the highest number since the state began to look for in 2008. Several observations were probably from the same few western countries. Cats UP, said Cody Norton, large carnivore specialist for DNR based in Marquette.
A total of 75 cougar sightings have taken place since 2008.
âThe numbers have definitely gone up,â Norton said.
Once a species native to Michigan, cougars were hunted to extinction when the state was colonized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, wildlife managers monitor the first big cat forays into the Great Lakes state, and while they don’t help a potential repopulation here, they allow nature to take its course.
Modern technology makes it easier to identify the cougar, Norton said. Not so long ago, a person seeing a potential lead would have to call an MNR official to come and examine it, and hope the wind or rain didn’t wash it off first. Now, a person carries a camera with them on their smartphone and can take a photo of the runway in the moment, he said. And photos from motion-triggered surveillance cameras make up the majority of confirmed cougar sightings.
âWe’re definitely improving ourselves so we can confirm and document them when they happen,â Norton said.
A study published earlier this year and authored by Mariella Gantchoff, an ecologist in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at State University of New York, examined the quality and connectivity of suitable habitat for cougars in Minnesota. , Wisconsin and Michigan. He found “high regional connectivity in a generally west-east direction” – important as this is the direction from which stable and breeding cougar populations are found in the Black Hills region of Wyoming, Nebraska and North America. North and South Dakota.
To date, researchers have only confirmed solitary male cougars in Michigan. This includes the recovery of two poached cougar carcasses and DNA samples that staff were able to collect from the wild, said Norton, who worked with Gantchoff on his study. The poached cougars were genetically linked to a population in South Dakota, Norton said.
âAs of yet, we have never been able to document a female, or kittens, or any kind of breedingâ in Michigan, he said.
Young male cougars often leave groups when beaten. âIn general, it’s a lot harder to have a mate when there’s a bigger, meaner buck in the area,â Norton said. But females usually don’t disperse as far or as often as males.
“It’s kind of a limiting factor,” he said. “Is a female going to make her way here, where a population could actually settle? Or are we just going to keep seeing these lonely males looking for a female and never having a chance?”
And these lonely male cats are known to go to great lengths to find a mate. A male radio collared cougar from South Dakota was tracked in 2010 as it passed through Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The radio collar eventually stopped providing a signal, but the cougar is presumed to have moved eastward to Ontario and then to Connecticut, where he was struck by a car and killed – about 2,000 miles from his home. domicile of origin.
Suitable habitat for cougars includes rugged terrain with rolling hills and elevation changes, as well as densely forested areas with falling trees.
âCougars are ambush predators,â Norton said. “If you’ve got windfall, if you’ve got a lot of areas of thick cover and elevations where they can ambush and attack a deer or other source of prey, they’ll usually do better there.”
The connectivity of their range is also important. âFor them to move between these high quality habitat patches, if you have too many roads or other physical barriers, it will be difficult for them to move,â Norton said.
Although cougars are associated with mountains, they were actually the most common land mammal in the Americas before European colonization, Norton said – found throughout North America, including deserts and parts of Florida ( the famous Florida panthers are a type of cougar), Central America and South America, he said.
âThey are super adaptable,â he said.
Considering the adaptability of cougars and the suitability of the habitat in Michigan, why aren’t there more cougars here? The answer likely lies in the Midwestern “bread basket”, Norton said.
The areas west of the Dakotas are “all agricultural,” he said. âIt could be an acceptable habitat when the corn is in place, when these crops are not harvested. But in winter, when these are harvested, it’s a pretty open and flat landscape like a pancake.
âIn western and southwestern Minnesota, where we don’t have woodlands, where it’s more of agriculture, you can see these sightings (of cougars) appearing just along the river corridors. They use the river corridors as an area to travel and try to keep moving. And some of them head east and end up in Michigan. “
Norton said there was hope that research similar to Gantchoff’s study would be done in North and South Dakota, in order to better understand the movements and limitations of cougars in the older cat population. eastern United States.
Of the 75 confirmed cougar sightings in Michigan, 74 occurred in the Upper Peninsula. A single confirmed cougar sighting occurred on the Lower Peninsula, Bath Township of County Clinton, about 20 miles northeast of Lansing, in 2017, where a resident photographed the big cat as he he was crossing a road. This one still intrigues wildlife managers.
“We don’t have any genetic material or anything from this animal to verify that it is a wild animal versus maybe a captive that could have escaped temporarily,” Norton said. .
While cougars have a suitable habitat route eastward through Minnesota and Wisconsin on the Upper Peninsula, for a cat to reach the Lower Peninsula would either require traversing miles of frozen Great Lakes ice. from above, or bypass the barriers of Lake Michigan. and the densely populated areas around Chicago and northern Indiana.
âSo that he wouldn’t appear anywhere else, come to this place, or leave this placeâ¦ you would certainly think he would be spotted; other people would take pictures; we would be inundated with other reports, given the number of people who live in this area, âNorton said. “It kind of leaves us scratching our heads as to how that cat got there.”
The MNR does not have a management plan for cougars like it does for wolves or other species with more abundant populations in the state. But cougars are an endangered species in Michigan, and therefore protected, he said.
“There’s no plan to pick them up, bring them here and help them settle,” Norton said with a chuckle. “But if a female did show up, or if we saw a reproduction, we wouldn’t try to prevent that from happening. We would allow natural recolonization to occur.”
While the prospects of a potentially lethal apex predator lurking in the woods of Michigan can be baffling to some, conflict between humans and cougars is extremely rare and typically only occurs in high density cougar populations. in the west, Pacific Northwest, and Rocky Mountain states, Norton mentioned.
âIf we had a population, they sometimes have conflicts with the people as well as with the livestock. So that would be something that we should be paying attention to and watching, and trying to give the public good information. But it’s extremely, extremely rare, and probably not too much of a concern. “
Anyone who sees a cougar is asked to report it at michigan.gov/cougars.
“Of the 11 sightings this year, 10 were from the public; one from MNR staff,” Norton said. âThe public is our means of monitoring when these animals show up. It is a huge help for us. “
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or [email protected]