Latest big cat sighting in Michigan fuels debate

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Cougar sighting adds to state's big-cat debate

August 02, 2002

By Chris Sebastian, Muskegon Chronicle NEWS SERVICE


Ralph Alles knew the animal walking across his 10 acres Tuesday wasn't the typical coyote or deer that frequent his Ludington home.

He waited two hours then patrolled for signs of what the creature was, but instead of finding clues he discovered what he thought to be a German shepherd-sized mountain lion, sleeping among the tall grasses on the edge of his woods.

"He was a magnificently beautiful cat," Alles said. "He looks like he was made out of velvet."

The latest big-cat sighting in Michigan continues to excite some and baffle others. People have reported seeing cougars in the state for more than 30 years, but the Michigan Department of Natural Resources claims a permanent wild population probably does not exist.

The mountain lion, or cougar, is found throughout most of the Western Hemisphere, and aside from humans, has the widest north-south distribution of any nonmigrating, land-dwelling vertebrate. Adult cougars typically weigh 80 to 200 pounds, with males being much larger than females.

Patrick Rusz has studied the animals for several years, and is convinced a small population does call Michigan home. Rusz is the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation's director of wildlife programs, and has spent the past two years in field study, obtaining evidence to support the theory.

"These cats are not ghosts," he said. "We have cougars verified by DNA on 13 sites in Michigan."

The DNA evidence comes from cougar feces he collected during the past two summers and is crucial to prove his point. Tracks discovered are easily dismissed as coyote or fox, but DNA is not so easy to ignore.

Rusz and his coworkers have yet to explore the Ludington area, but said reports of cougar are so widespread over the years he suspects a couple of cats are in the region. The Sleeping Bear Dunes area is another hotspot for cougar sightings.

"We've been working intensively in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, most of the senior staff of the park's staff have seen cougars for years," Rusz said.

He insists the cats are not a recent entry or released family pets to the Michigan landscape, and believes close to 50 cats inhabit the state permanently.

The Michigan DNR, however, believes the big cats are not permanent. They might wander in and out of the state, or are family pets, but do live in Michigan.

"I think that our position has been that these are animals that can travel great distances, and its quite possible that they do come into the Upper Peninsula from time to time," said Tim Reis, DNR fur bearer management specialist.

The state has not seen physical evidence of mountain lions, and Reis said to his knowledge, the large number of hunters in Michigan have reported no sightings.

"Personally I think the department would be very interested to know if we have a sustainable population within the state," he said. But, "it's quite hard for me to imagine a ... mountain lion could go undetected in the lower peninsula."

Cougars normally leave humans alone, Rusz said. Both Alles and Dickinson said their cats leapt away at first sight of the men.

"These animals are not something to fear, but because of their sheer size they are something to respect," he said.
 

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