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Cougar Sightings Increased In 2020 In Michigan

Cougar walking over fallen tree
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
/
Trail cameras have made sightings of cougars easier to document, like this one in Mackinac County.

More than a 100 years ago, native cougars, or mountain lions, disappeared from Michigan.

Since then, the big cats have occasionally been spotted by residents as they wander in from states like the Dakotas.

After an increase in sightings around 2008, the state Department of Natural Resources created a team to keep track of animals. And in 2020, Michiganders reported seeing cougars 14 times, the most since the team formed.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with DNR large carnivore specialist, Cody Norton.

Interview Highlights

On Why They’re Recording More Cougar Sightings In Recent Years

Now, we have trail cameras, and we're seeing a ton of use out of those. They're getting cheaper [and] easier for people to use. They're using them [for] longer periods of the year. And also, everybody has a cell phone in their pocket, so if they come across tracks or scat, they can record it immediately.

On Why It’s Not Likely Cougars Would Reestablish Themselves In Michigan

If you look at kind of the habitat between the Great Lakes region and the Black Hills or Badlands, it's a lot of agriculture. There's not a lot of trees [and] not a lot of great habitat for cougars. So, with females dispersing shorter distances less often, that's kind of the big barrier to, I think, having a population get established in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Michigan, but you never know. We'll have to wait and see.

On What To Do In The Rare Chance You Encounter A Cougar

We should never run from a cougar or other large carnivores. If you have children with you or pets, if you can pick them up, so that they don't run away, that's always a good way to go. If you were to be attacked by any of the large carnivores we have in Michigan, you'd want to fight back. You wouldn't want to play dead, like you might with like a brown bear.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

More than a 100 years ago, native cougars, or mountain lions, disappeared from Michigan. Since then, the big cats have occasionally been spotted by residents wandering in from states like the Dakotas.

After an increase of sightings around 2008, the state Department of Natural Resources created a team to keep track of animals. And in 2020, Michiganders reported seeing cougars 14 times, the most since the team formed.

Cody Norton is a large carnivore specialist with the DNR. He joins me now. Thanks for being here.

Cody Norton: Thanks for having me.

Saliby: Why are we seeing more cougar sightings in recent years?

Norton: Honestly, if you look back, you know, when the cougar team was formed back in 2008, in those early years of having the team, most of our reports came through as tracks that people would find in the woods. They might cover them up with a bucket or something like that, and we physically had to go out there and try to be out there quick enough before some of that evidence disappeared.

Cougar spotted using a night vision trail camera
Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources
/
This cougar was spotted in Baraga County in November of 2020.

Now, we have trail cameras, and we're seeing a ton of use out of those. They're getting cheaper [and] easier for people to use. They're using them [for] longer periods of the year. And also, everybody has a cell phone in their pocket, so if they come across tracks or scat, they can record it immediately. So, you look at the reports, now, towards you know, the last couple of years, the vast majority of those come from trail camera photos or cell phone pics of tracks or scat.

Saliby: Is it a good thing or something that we should be concerned about, seeing more cougars in Michigan?

Norton: From what we can tell, you know, a lot of times, some of our reports from last year were, you know, photos that were taken the same day within a mile of each other. It doesn't suggest that, you know, we necessarily obviously didn't have 14 different cougars showing up last year. We're getting better with the new technology at being able to confirm them and find them when they do show up here.

Saliby: You've mentioned a couple of different ways that your team monitors and tracks cougars, like the trail cameras [and] getting photos from residents. What else does your team do once you have that information?

Norton: Yeah, so you know, just because we get a photo of a cougar doesn't mean that it necessarily came from Michigan or that it hasn't been altered in some way. So, we do, especially with trail cameras, it makes it pretty convenient because you have background. So, a lot of times, you'll have trees in the background or possibly a building or some other feature.

So, we'll go out and actually do a site investigation, we'll go to that location where, you know, if there's a trail camera where that trail camera was. We'll take photos from the viewpoint of that camera to line up the background in the photos. We'll take, you know, GPS coordinates for that location.

cougar cutout outside a house in Delta County
Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources
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The DNR cougar team uses a cardboard cutout for scale when verifying a sighting.

And we do have a cardboard cutout too that's kind of a life size cougar. So, that helps if the animal is in a field or you know, without something as a size or scale reference. So basically, we do, you know, everything we can to make sure that when we get a photo or evidence from a cougar that it did take place in Michigan, and that everything lines up.

Saliby: Could a cougar population ever reestablish itself in Michigan?

Norton: All of the evidence we've been able to collect over the years since 2008, anytime we've been able to get a sex off of a cougar, it's been male. So, we've had two poached carcasses. We've had DNA samples, and then sometimes just from trail cameras, we can actually get a good clear view and determine that the animal is a male, but we've never been able to document a female or kittens or any sign of reproduction. 

So, if you look at just kind of basic cougar biology, typically, the males will disperse or leave their natal home ranges more often and go farther distances than females. And so, in those two poached carcasses we've had that we were able to do DNA analysis on and try to figure out what populations they were from, they most closely related to populations in South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

So, if you look at kind of the habitat between the Great Lakes region and the Black Hills or Badlands, it's a lot of agriculture. There's not a lot of trees [and] not a lot of great habitat for cougars. So, with females dispersing shorter distances less often, that's kind of the big barrier to, I think, having a population get established in Minnesota or Wisconsin or Michigan, but you never know. We'll have to wait and see.

Saliby: It seems very rare that our listeners would ever spot a cougar here in the Capital Region. There's only been one sighting outside the Upper Peninsula, and that was in Clinton County in 2017. But what should people do if they do see a cougar?

Human hand next to a cougar pawprint in the snow
Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources
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The DNR found this set of cougar tracks in February of 2020 in Schoolcraft County during an Upper Peninsula Winter Wolf Track survey.

Norton: Yeah, and it's really similar to most of our large carnivore species in Michigan and like you said, very, very, very unlikely that it will happen with a cougar, but if you did encounter a cougar or other large carnivores, it's best to, you know, face the animal [and] make yourself look big and as intimidating as possible. Raise your arms. Anything you can do to make them second guess whether you're a prey species or not and you should not be tangled with.

We should never run from a cougar or other large carnivores. If you have children with you or pets, if you can pick them up, so that they don't run away, that's always a good way to go. If you were to be attacked by any of the large carnivores we have in Michigan, you'd want to fight back.

You wouldn't want to play dead, like you might with like a brown bear. And yeah, if anything like that happened, you'd want to report it to the local authorities or the DNR as soon as possible.

Saliby: Cody Norton is a large carnivore specialist with the DNR. Thank you for joining me.

Norton: Thank you for having me, Sophia.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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