Searching for the Elusive Puma in Michigan

Thousands of Michigan residents have reported sightings of cougars over the years, and some scientists say there's evidence of a significant cougar population. But the state's Department of Natural Resources says cougars — also called pumas — don't exist in Michigan. Reporter Celeste Headlee goes looking for the big cats and examines the conflict.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

OK. That's it for the bird news. On to cats. Cougars are stirring up trouble in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. They aren't attacking people, but there's a fierce argument over whether mountain lions really exist in the Midwest. This is an important issue because if the cats are there, they are endangered, and they'll need to be protected. Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE reporting:

Most biologists will tell you that if you live in the Midwest, your chances of encountering a cougar are a little lower than the chances of winning the lottery and being struck by lightning on the same day, but residents of Michigan tell a different story.

Mr. JACK WHITMER: I was mushroom hunting down here on South M-18 by the Mid-Forest Lodge last May, I think it was. I thought I'd seen a deer coming out of the woods. It was a brownish-red animal. When it came out into the opening, I see there was a cougar, a mountain lion, whatever you want to call it, and just had this big long tail, and I said, `Jesus, that's no deer,' you know.

HEADLEE: Jack Whitmer says he stood still and silently watched the cougar pass with two small cubs. But the State Department of Natural Resources says Whitmer probably saw a dog or a bobcat.

Mr. WHITMER: No, uh-uh. I've hunted and fished all my life, and I've been in the woods a lot. I've seen lots of bobcats and it was way bigger than any bobcat, but it didn't have no short tail like a bobcat, either.

HEADLEE: How about a big dog?

Mr. WHITMER: No, uh-uh. Positively, it was a cougar.

HEADLEE: But wildlife ecologist Clay Nielsen is skeptical.

Mr. CLAY NIELSEN (Wildlife Ecologist): In a lot of cases, biologists will dispute that people are even seeing cougars because a sighting--you can't go back and verify. If you have a carcass, if you have verifiable DNA evidence or a picture, that you can go back to the location, that's a different story. But a lot of sightings are not reliable.

HEADLEE: In the dispute over cougars in Michigan, Nielsen comes down firmly on the side of the state Department of Natural Resources. The DNR maintains there are no wild resident cougars in the state. The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, though, disagrees. Biologist Pat Rusz is the director of wildlife programs for the group. He says he surprised a dozing cat while hiking through the massive Dead Stream Swamp. Rusz points to the sandy trail where earlier, he found 38 of what he calls picture-perfect cougar paw prints.

Mr. PAT RUSZ (Michigan Wildlife Conservancy): The most diagnostic thing is the heel pad here, which you can see is squared off on the front, unlike a dog, which tends to come to a point, and there are there distinct lobes at the heel of the pad. Bears make a similar pad, but it's much wider, and it extends to outside the toes.

HEADLEE: Rusz says there's a good reason why these animals are called the ghost cats. They're active in early morning and late evening. They avoid people, and they bury their kill. Even hunters and outdoorsmen rarely see them in the wild. But Ray Rustem with the state DNR says the federal government has made a real effort to locate these animals.

Mr. RAY RUSTEM (State Department of Natural Resources): The National Park Service spent all last winter in Sleeping Bear Dunes with trail cameras, doing track surveys throughout the park, and they put an extensive effort into that area, which has been recognized, supposedly, as one of the areas that has a higher population in the state. And they found nothing. So, I mean, even from a research standpoint, it is a difficulty in that you can't put your hands on these things, so how can you study them?

HEADLEE: It's not easy to track a cougar. The cats are known to travel long distances. One radio-collared male was found about 430 miles away from its original habitat. Cougars are usually documented using camera traps that sense infrared heat and take photos. Biologists can also use dogs that are trained to bay the cats into trees. Clay Nielsen says it's highly unlikely the cats are in the Great Lakes region, but anything is possible.

Mr. NIELSEN: There are always surprises out there, and usually when somebody says `never,' that's when something strange happens, but definitely for an animal like the cougar, we need to have better evidence than 10 people just saying they've seen something out there.

HEADLEE: State biologists complain that the fight over cougars is a distraction from real wildlife management issues. But members of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy say they'll continue searching for the ghost cat until it's recognized as a permanent resident of the Great Lakes State. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in central Michigan.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Hold on. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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