Michigan DNR: 12 confirmed cougar sightings in 2020

All reports in Upper Peninsula

On October 13, 2020, a trail camera photo was captured of a cougar in western Mackinac County. This is about 10 miles from where August 30 photos were captured in Luce County. (DNR) (Michigan DNR)

The Michigan DNR has confirmed 12 cougar sightings in 2020, all in the Upper Peninsula.

In 2020, the DNR has 12 confirmed reports of cougars in Michigan, all in the Upper Peninsula. It’s the most confirmed sightings in one year in at least the last 12 years, according to DNR records.

Michigan cougar sightings 2020. (Michigan DNR)

In February, DNR Wildlife Division staff confirmed two of those reports after finding cougar tracks while conducting the U.P. winter wolf track survey. Four additional sightings were confirmed after residents submitted trail camera photos of cougars. The DNR said it is possible reports could be sightings of the same animal.

Since 2008, the DNR has confirmed 61 cougar sightings, with only one of those coming in the Lower Peninsula, in 2017. Though originally native to Michigan, cougars were driven from the state’s landscape due to several factors, including habitat loss, around the early 1900s. Despite the occasional reported sightings, wildlife experts say there’s no evidence of a breeding population in the state.

“DNA analysis of two cougars poached in the U.P., for example, showed the animals likely dispersed from their established populations in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska,” said Cody Norton, large carnivore specialist with the DNR, earlier this year.

Although sightings are rare in Michigan, they have been on the rise in recent years. In 2019, at least 11 cougar sightings were confirmed in the state. The DNR said last year that sightings could be increasing because more people are using trail cameras and reports, in general, are more frequent.

“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.”

(Find a complete rundown of the 12 sightings in 2020 right here)

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.

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital special projects manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013.