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Cougar sightings in Michigan: Are they on the rise? What you need to know

Data shows uptick in sightings in 2019

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We've had five confirmed cougar sightings in Michigan this year. Here's everything you need to know.

This week, the Michigan DNR confirmed two new cougar sightings, which adds up to five sightings this year in Michigan.

Since 2008, the DNR has confirmed 43 cougar sightings, with only one of those coming in the Lower Peninsula in 2017. In some cases, these reports may include multiple sightings of the same cougar, not necessarily 43 individual animals.

From 2018: Cougar captured on DNR camera in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

The species in Michigan is listed as endangered and is protected under state law. The DNR has a ton of information on cougars in the state. Let's take a look at some common questions.

Is there a population of wild cougars in Michigan?

Cougars, also called mountain lions, were originally native to Michigan, but were extirpated from Michigan around the turn of the century. The last known wild cougar legally taken in the state occurred in 1906 near Newberry.

There have been periodic reports of cougar sightings since that time from various locations in Michigan. This situation is not unique to Michigan, and has been occurring in many other mid-western and eastern states as well.

If cougars are here, where did they come from?

Based on documented evidence, cougars observed in Michigan could be escaped or released pets. Or, they could be transient or dispersing cougars from the nearest known breeding populations in North and South Dakota. These populations are over 900 miles from Michigan.

The National Park Service has conducted road and trail surveys and trail camera surveillance in the past, designed to detect cougars in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. No evidence of cougars has been found.

Are there pet cougars or exotic big cats like leopards and African lions in Michigan?

A few people who owned cougars or large cats prior to 2000 are still permitted to own these animals. It has been illegal to own a cougar or large exotic cats such as African lions, leopards, and jaguars, in Michigan since 2000. No new permits are being issued.

The DNR occasionally receives reports of illegally owned large pet cats including cougars, and has confiscated these animals. It is possible that escaped or released pet cougars account for at least a portion of the sightings in Michigan.

What should I do if I encounter a cougar? What do they look like?

The cougar typically weighs between 90 and 180 lbs, with a few large males topping 200 lbs. Cougars are tan to brown. Adult cougars have a body length about 5-6 feet long from nose to base of tail. The tail is long and thick with a black tip. The head is relatively small compared to the body. Cougars are primarily nocturnal although they can be active during the day.

The odds of encountering a cougar in the wild are very small and attacks are extremely rare. Should you encounter a cougar:

  • Face the animal and do not act submissive. Stand tall, wave your arms, and talk in a loud voice.
  • Never run from a cougar or other large carnivore. If children are present, pick them up so they cannot run.
  • If attacked, fight back with whatever is available. DO NOT play dead.
  • Report the encounter to local authorities and the DNR as soon as possible.

Are sightings on the rise?

Data on sightings is available dating back to 2008. (2008 is when the DNR began reviewing and investigating cougar sightings with a standardized procedure. It is likely that people submitted observations prior that time.)

According to the DNR, seven sightings were reported in 2011 and in 2012. In 2015, there were six sightings. And then, between 2016 and 2018, there were only three total sightings.

Here's what the DNR says about the recent increase:

“Regarding there being an increase in verified sightings, that is unlikely. We have had 5 verifications this year, all fairly recently, but they could all be the same animal potentially. There is no way to be sure of that. With so many people having trail cameras in the woods this time of year, “catching” an animal on camera is more likely. So, it is likely that we are just having more people turn in their photos. Every so often we have numerous verifications due to a similar situation.”

This article first appeared in the Morning Report newsletter, a daily deep dive into important and local topics. Sign up to get it in your inbox every morning right here.

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