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Michigan Cougar Conspiracy

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on January 29th, 2007

Last October, I posted an article entitled Michigan DNR To Take Cougar Sightings Seriously here on Cryptomundo.

Roar of Michigan cougar debate grows louder

Francis X. Donnelly / The Detroit News

TRAVERSE CITY — No cougars live in Michigan, say some state and federal wildlife officials.

But a conservation group believes so many of the big cats exist that they cover the state.

Somewhere between those two views lies the truth, which has become as elusive as the skittish animal at the center of the debate, cougar experts said.

The argument has grown increasingly bitter with charges of hoaxes, cover-ups, blurry photos reminiscent of Bigfoot sightings, a state agency accused of violating state law, scientists accused of ignoring their own research, and a dead pet panther named Sasha.

“It’s about money, ego, power — all the forces of evil,” said Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, about the controversy.

The disagreement is more than an academic food fight. The two sides agree that public safety is at stake, but, as with everything else dealing with the issue, they disagree how.

The wildlife conservancy, based in Bath, near Lansing, says the government is failing to protect residents and an endangered species.

The state and federal officials say the conservation group is needlessly scaring people.

Cougars — also called mountain lions — seldomly attack humans, but a growing number of reported sightings — 1,200 since 2001 — has alarmed residents around the state.

Last year, Berrien County on the Indiana border issued a public safety advisory after an attack on a horse, and in June Battle Creek police did the same after officers reportedly spotted several cougars.

Eleanor Comings, 62, a volunteer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City, said she was followed by a cougar for 20 minutes along one of the park trails in 2003.

“When I first saw it, it was my worst nightmare,” she said. “My second thought was: Everyone wants to see one, and here it is.”

Searching for hard evidence

A peer-reviewed study recently published in the “American Midland Naturalist” cited proof of eight cougars in Michigan.

The study, by Central Michigan University and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said researchers found DNA evidence of the animals by analyzing nearly 300 samples of droppings collected from 2001 to 2003.

The eight positive samples were located in four Upper Peninsula counties: Delta, Dickinson, Houghton and Menominee, and four in the Lower Peninsula: Alcona, Emmet, Presque Isle and Roscommon.

Partly because of the study, the state Department of Natural Resources added a cougar page to its Web site and will send three staffers to New Mexico to develop more expertise on the animal.

The DNR’s action sounded one of the few cordial notes in the raucous debate, but some wildlife officials remain dubious about the wildlife conservancy.

Mike DeCapita, endangered species chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in East Lansing, criticized the conservancy on several counts, including its use of blurry photos of cougars to prove their existence.

“Sightings of Bigfoot or UFOs don’t prove those phenomena either,” he said.

Where do they come from?

In the 1800s, cougars prowled all over Michigan and the rest of North America. The tan animal can grow up to 8 feet from nose to tail tip and weigh 200 pounds. It can run 40 miles per hour and eat up to 10 pounds of deer a day.

The animal was poisoned, trapped and hunted to near extinction a century ago.

The wildlife conservancy believes cougars were never exterminated in Michigan, and that the population has grown to 100.

It said the DNR is violating the state endangered species law by failing to develop a management plan to protect the cougar. But state officials said the law doesn’t require a management plan, only that it protect the animal.

Mike Zuidema, a retired forester with the DNR, began keeping track of cougar sightings in 1981 and continued after his retirement in 1997. His journal lists 1,000 sightings, including several by DNR officials, including a former deputy director.

He doesn’t understand how someone could question the animal’s existence. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They sit at their desk too much.”

But some state and federal wildlife biologists continue to believe no cougars live in Michigan and that the occasional one found here came from outside the state.

They said the fact that so few big cats are killed by cars or hunters in Michigan suggests that their number here is negligible.

Scientists said it’s nearly impossible to prove where a cougar comes from, but that hasn’t stopped both sides from jumping into the gray area with both feet.

Bias enters debate for proof

In the cougar debate, both sides accuse the other of being more interested in pushing their beliefs than searching for the truth.

When a resident took a photo of an apparent cougar in an Alcona County field several years ago, a DNR wildlife biologist dismissed it as being staged. He said the animal may have been stuffed.

But another DNR biologist, Larry Robinson, later said he saw the cougar and it was real.

“This is a note I absolutely dread writing,” he wrote in an e-mail to his supervisors. “I had the terrible misfortune of seeing the Alcona Co. cougar.”

Robinson, who took photos of the cougar’s tracks, asked his bosses how to keep his discovery out of the public eye.

“What do I do to get the pictures and info to our division files without this getting out to the media?”

Robinson, who is now retired, said Friday he couldn’t recall when his discovery was reported by the press. DNR officials said the agency doesn’t engage in misleading the public.

In a separate incident, the wildlife conservancy released a video in 2004 that purported to show proof of wild cougars living in Michigan.

Among the evidence was a skull found by woodcutters in Chippewa County in the Upper Peninsula.

But another conservancy group, the Cougar Network, of Concord, Mass., investigated the claim and traced the skull to a pet mountain lion named Sasha.

After Sasha died, its owner took it to a Chippewa taxidermy shop to be mounted. The taxidermist tossed the skull out his back door, where another animal apparently carried it to an adjacent property.Francis X. Donnelly

Looks like the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are still battling over the cougar conundrum.

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy boldly states on its website:

Cougars in Michigan

We proved they are here!

Will you help protect them?

Cougars never disappeared from Michigan, but people thought they did. The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy boldly demonstrated – in the face of criticism -that cougars still live and breed in Michigan. With official recognition, cougars can receive the research and attention they need.Michigan Wildlife Conservancy

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster.


6 Responses to “Michigan Cougar Conspiracy”

  1. mahlerfan responds:

    Craig:

    You may remember the story, a few years back of a coyote found living in Manhattan (Central park.) Prior to that, one had been found as roadkill on the Major Degan expressway. Before both of these incidents I had spotted one in the Bronx (Riverdale.) This past summer several people reported seeing deer in the Bronx. My point is that animals are always expanding their range if they can. I just can’t understand why biologists find this so hard to believe. Are they waiting for a mountain lion to walk down Fifth Avenue?

  2. DWA responds:

    The only rationale I can come up with as a Federal employee is this:

    Government (outside of Defense) has too little money, to do too many things, and something better REALLY be a problem before it gets funding. And the materials you have to provide to the public about dangerous animals cost, well, money.

    I think another problem is the mentality prevailing among much of the public that these are the Government’s animals and the Government is responsible for what they do. Which is of course ridiculous. But bureaucrats will overreact to it.

    All that having been said: denial is a very very bad idea in government, as many within it could probably tell you right now.

  3. I_M_NOT_A_Yarwen responds:

    The Canadian province of Ontario has a small, but healthy, documented population of cougars. This province borders Michigan, there is no fence! To the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Game official who asked where the cougars in Michigan came from, well, I am going to give him a hint. LOOK NORTH. A healthy and growing population of animals that prey on deer living in an area (Ontario), right beside a state that is full of deer (Michigan).

    Geez, I wonder, must be a conspiracy! Blame the Canadians!

  4. DWA responds:

    Yarwen: you’re just making trouble. Stop making trouble.

    If I were a real honest to Pete MI DNR biologist stuck in a case of State Denial like this right now, I’d probably be wondering where my soul was and whether they’d given me a receipt.

    Animals do stuff, and any member of the public wanting Government to do something about it had better be prepared to pay for lots of dogs, lots of hunters, and like the man says, a fence.

  5. Mnynames responds:

    What gets me is that even if they do come from another state (Or country), they’re there now. Maybe the numbers are low, or even intermittent, but they ARE there. That means they better have a plan to protect them, and the public.

    In Cape May, New Jersey, there’s been a population explosion of Coyotes recently, and the public is demanding that something be done about them because too many pets have been taken. No one’s sure where they came from. To my knowledge there have been no photos of them, not even blurry ones. Incidents are brief, and usually consist of a poodle owner turning his back for a moment, hearing a squeal, and turning back to see something running into the woods and his cutey schnookums missing and presumed tasty. There is an upswing in missing pets, but the reasons behind it could be argued ad nauseam if one so chose. My point is this- The Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking the matter seriously, warning locals to mind their pets and small children, trying to trap them and get estimates of their population size and so on. To my knowledge they haven’t caught any, but they are developing a plan, and on less information, and with less deadly outcomes should they not, than this Michigan incident.

  6. joppa responds:

    I believe that all of the various STATE WILDLIFE AGENCIES have hired “Bagdad Bob”, the original Iraqi Minister of Information as their spokesman.



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