Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Michigan Cougars: Fact, Fiction and Future
For at least a decade, there’s been an ongoing argument about whether or not wild cougars exist in southwest Michigan. Personally, I haven’t decided either way. But from both sides, I will say there’s been no shortage of “mountain lyin’” if you get my drift.
From the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, we’ve heard dismissive denials and a “we-know-best” attitude about wildlife. The message here has been that only a DNR biologist has enough brain power to identify a cougar when they see one.
As for the public, their cougar credibility has often ranked right up there (or down there) with sightings of Elvis or Sasquatch. We’ve heard reports of black cougars, although in the U.S. not a single black cougar has ever been killed or photographed. We’ve heard claims about deer carcasses hung from trees, which is something an African leopard would do, but not a North American cougar.
But the controversy may soon be settled by an unlikely judge: the cougars themselves. As DNR biologist Steve Chadwick said at a recent public meeting in Three Rivers, “It’s only a matter of time before a wild cougar turns up in southwest Michigan.”
True, the DNR has yet to confirm a cougar sighting in the Lower Peninsula. That would require either a clear paw print, scat pile, DNA sample or legitimate photograph. However, solitary males have already migrated more than 700 miles east from the Black Hills. Last year, a cougar was killed near Chicago and another was verified in Greene County, Indiana, a mere 300 miles south of Kalamazoo.
The DNR, once tone-deaf to public opinion on cougars, has changed its tune. To investigate serious sightings, they’ve formed an official cougar team that trained at a ranch in New Mexico. When they do verify a cougar, as they have in the western U.P., they’re quick to inform the news media.
“When we have the goods, we tell people,” Chadwick said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”
My question is how the people of southern Michigan will react once the big cats officially return. For me, to see such a majestic eminence pad through an oak-hickory forest at dusk would be a peak life experience. For others, the thought of a six-foot long, 150-pound killing machine afoot in the landscape would be due cause to keep a.30-30 rifle handy.
Given these extremes, here’s what will likely be the cougar’s biggest human obstacles.
The first is personal safety. DNR officials say there’s already an unwarranted fear of cougars, a solitary animal that wants little to do with people. Yes, there’s been rare cases of attack on humans. But in the mountain west, millions of people live safely in cougar country without incident. Around here, shouldn’t we worry more about the amped-up maniacs who run rural meth labs?
The other potential cougar concern will likely involve what the animals eat – which is mainly deer. Some hunters may argue that an influx of cougars will put a major dent in the whitetail population. But consider this: in my own St. Joseph County, hunters bagged 5,300 deer in 2009 and vehicle accidents claimed another 700. By comparison, an average cougar kills about one deer per week. Given the cougar’s wandering ways, we’re unlikely to see more than one resident cougar per county. So if a cougar took 50 deer annually, that’s less than 1 percent of my county’s yearly harvest.
Finally, for all their wily ways, cougars don’t fare well on highways. In south Florida, about 100 cougars still haunt the Everglades – and eight to 10 are killed each year in vehicle accidents. With nearly 1,000 miles of paved roads in St. Joseph County alone, there’s bound to be some big flat cats for local taxidermists to work with.
Despite the odds, there’s seems to an unstoppable force at play here. Since I moved to the country in 1995, I’ve seen several near-extinct species -- sand hill cranes, beavers, coyotes, and wild turkeys -- make a remarkable comeback. Now, after a 100-year exile, our reigning feline predator stands poised to reclaim its ancestral hunting grounds. I think we’re lucky, indeed blessed, to get such a second chance. And I hope we’ll find room in the countryside, and in our hearts, to welcome the cougar home.