Do increased cougar sightings mean more are roaming Michigan?

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Cougar sightings are on the rise in Michigan.

Confirmed sightings of the animal, also known as a puma or mountain lion, hit double digits for the first time in 2019, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources recorded more sightings in the last three years than it did in the 10 years prior. 

Ten sightings of the animal have been confirmed by the agency this year, all in the Upper Peninsula, compared with a peak of 15 in 2020. 

Male cougars are known to travel great distances in search of places to establish breeding locations with available females, said John Pepin, deputy public information officer at DNR, and it is almost always males that are recorded in confirmed sightings. In 2011, one cougar traveled a record-breaking 2,100 miles from South Dakota to Connecticut. 

A screenshot of a cougar posted to Twitter that claims it was taken in September in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The most recent sighting in Michigan, confirmed by the agency in October, was on Sept. 16, when a photo was captured of a cougar in southern Dickinson County.

This was about 50 miles from where a July 20 video was captured in Baraga County, which itself was about 10 miles away from where a photo was captured the previous day in Marquette County.

DNR confirms sightings based on video, photographs or through visible tracks, with two cases in the U.P. having been a result of poached cougar carcasses. 

But a rise in sightings does not necessarily mean more of the animals are reclaiming Michigan as their home.

The steep increase in confirmed reports may be due to the recent popularity of "trail" or "game" cameras, according to Pepin, who added that hunters and other enthusiasts often have multiple cameras in different locations. Those are relatively new devices that trigger themselves when there is movement in the frame, and are strapped to trees and left there. 

The state agency does not know how many of the sightings in recent years were unique, according to Pepin, but assume that several reports may involve the same animal or animals based on some studies as well as the close geographical locations of some sightings.

DNR also cannot estimate how many cougars may be in Michigan at any time, but presume that it is a very small number based on the relatively low number of verified reports. No evidence has been found of a breeding population in Michigan, Pepin said.

A mountain lion was caught on a Michigan Department of Natural Resources game camera on Oct. 1, 2018, in Gogebic County.

When a DNR trail camera in 2018 captured a photo of a cougar in Gogebic County, Pepin added, "it marked the first time the department had caught a cougar on more than 3 million game camera images collected since 2009."

Cougars, have been eliminated from about two-thirds of their historic range. The species, which have the largest relative hind legs of all the members of the cat family and can jump up to 18 feet from the ground, were once the most widely distributed land animal in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At one point, the animal roamed all 48 contiguous states in the United States, according to the Cougar Fund, a Wyoming-based nonprofit that educates people on and advocates for the protection of these animals.

State officials said two trail cameras in the Upper Peninsula captured images of a cougar on Sept. 18, 2019, and Oct. 6, 2019.

Today, the Cougar Fund says, viable breeding populations are found in only 16 states after centuries of attempts to exterminate them that began during the European colonization of North America.

Those states include South Dakota, Wyoming and northwest Nebraska, from which Pepin said genetic testing showed some of the cougars found in Michigan likely came. Other states include Washington, California, North Dakota and Texas. 

Even though the animal was at one time native to the state, Michigan residents today are very unlikely to encounter one in the wild, according to DNR, and they also rarely attack those whose paths they do cross. 

The animals were trapped and hunted from the state around the turn of the 20th century, said Pepin, and are now listed as an endangered species and protected under state law.