Cougar killing sets authorities on hunt for clues

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

The lifeless cougar was found near a popular dump site, amid the hardwoods and conifers north of Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula.

A vehicle’s tracks showed where the carcass had been tossed to the roadside. It had rolled down an embankment, coming to rest in a heap at the bottom.

James Stankevich lives about 300 feet away. He did not see the cougar being dumped earlier this month, but knows what he would do if he saw any of the number of cougars that have been reported locally.

“He better not come in my yard because I have six dogs, and my dogs are more important than any cougar,” Stankevich said.

Cougars are rare in Michigan, protected by law and on the rebound, and this mountain lion’s killing is the latest clash with humans in the animals’ effort to reinhabit old territory.

Authorities have made it a high priority to determine who killed and discarded the cougar.

The cougar, a 110-pound male, was killed elsewhere and found Feb. 1 by a woman walking her dog in this remote area of the western Upper Peninsula, about 20 miles from Wisconsin.

The animal was snared by a trap. Ligature marks around the neck were observed by investigators at the dump site and substantiated the same day by a local veterinarian using X-rays.

If the trap had been properly set, the cat should have been able to free itself, investigators said, though malfunction can occur.

Whoever was responsible did not report the kill, as required by state law.

Some residents in this sparsely populated area, four miles north of Iron Mountain, believe the trapper may have panicked and made a bad situation worse. They theorize that the person accidentally killed the cougar, then dumped the animal to avoid having to notify authorities.

“They may think, ‘I’ll turn it in, and tell them I’m really sorry,’ ” said John Gaudette, supervisor in Breitung Township, where the carcass was found.

“And then you are charged with a crime, and fined and lose your (hunting) privileges for five years, and pay restitution and they say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re sorry too.’ ”

Randy Gustafson, owner of the nearby Northwoods Wilderness Outfitters, sees other possible motives.

“It’s as if someone wanted to make a statement and dropped it right where it would be found, in an area where cougars have been sighted,” Gustafson said.

“Some people don’t want them around for a lot of the same reasons they don’t like wolves. They are afraid of them.”

Many believe the cougar is the same animal seen in the area and captured on trail cameras as recently as Sept. 15, but John Pepin, a DNR spokesman, said there’s no proof of that. The dead mountain lion was found about four miles from the area where the cougar’s photo was snapped 4 1/2 months earlier, he said.

“Despite the close proximity of the two events, we have no evidence to directly confirm they are indeed the same cougar,” Pepin said.

The cougar carcass has been at the state’s Wildlife Disease Laboratory at Michigan State University, in a cooler, frozen in a body bag sealed with an evidence tag, said Dr. Steven Schmitt, a veterinarian with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A necropsy done Feb. 19 established the animal was strangled in a snare, said Lt. Dave Shaw with the DNR’s Special Investigations Unit. The exam did not reveal whether the cougar’s death was intentional or an accident.

“Right now, we just want to know what happened,” Shaw said. “We are not making any assumptions.”

Lt. Pete Wright of the DNR’s customer service center in Marquette took the unusual step of authorizing two news releases within a week seeking public help. The second disclosed details not made public earlier, including the marks from the snare.

The fact that cougars are so rare is spurring authorities to find out who’s responsible.

“It is an unusual investigation. Not often do you hear of a cougar left for dead. We thought by releasing some more information we could keep it on the radar,” Wright said, noting there is no suspect right now.

“Probably, quite frankly, it’s going to be someone giving us a call and giving us a name,” he said.

Once prevalent in Michigan, cougars were eliminated from the state around the turn of the 20th century, but the cats have been seen repeatedly in the Upper Peninsula over the past several years. Since 2008, 33 corroborated sightings have been confirmed by DNR, including one Sept. 15, 2015, in Dickinson County, not far from where the dead cougar was found Feb. 1.

The cougars are considered to be wanderers from the Dakotas; no breeding pairs have been confirmed.

Males are about 8 feet long nose to tail and typically weigh 115-220 pounds; females average 6.7 feet long and weigh 64-141 pounds.

So far, there has been just one prosecution in Michigan for poaching a cougar.

A father and son said they were at their hunting camp in Schoolcraft County on Dec. 9, 2013, when the son shot and wounded the animal, which they said was menacing the father. They tracked the cougar the next day and killed it.

Authorities alleged the cougar was killed for sport, and that the pair ate the heart.

Troy Richard, 42, of Bay City pleaded to misdemeanor counts of taking an endangered species and criminal conspiracy. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, ordered to pay $5,225, and required to perform 120 hours of community service. He also had to forfeit the .357 Magnum he used to kill the cougar and cannot hunt through 2016.

Theodore Richard, 68, of Munger pleaded to one count of taking an endangered species and was ordered to pay $1,725 and perform 96 hours of community service. The judge revoked his hunting privileges through 2015.

John Barnes is a freelance writer in West Michigan.