Michigan DNR: 10 confirmed cougar sightings in 2021

All reports in Upper Peninsula

On Sept. 16, this trail camera photo was taken of a cougar in southern Dickinson County. This is about 50 miles from where a July 20 video was captured in Baraga County. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

The Michigan DNR has confirmed 10 cougar sightings in 2021, all in the Upper Peninsula, continuing an upward trend in sightings over the last few years.

The most recent confirmed sighting was in Dickinson County, where a trail camera image captured a cougar walking through a forest area.

“On Sept. 16, 2021, a trail camera photo was taken of a cougar in southern Dickinson County,” said Cody Norton, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist. “This is about 50 miles from where a July 20 video was captured in Baraga County.”

The DNR’s team of biologists that investigates cougar reports had seen the photo but initially could not confirm the source or location where it was taken. The team was able to investigate the report after the owner of the photo saw a newspaper story about it and contacted the DNR.

This latest confirmation brings the total number of confirmed cougar reports to 74 in Michigan since 2008. This figure does not necessarily translate to the same number of cougars because a single animal may be included in more than one confirmed report, the DNR said.

So far this year, 10 cougar reports have been confirmed in the U.P., including three from Dickinson County, two from Marquette County and one each from Baraga, Delta, Houghton, Luce and Schoolcraft counties.

This year continues a three-year trend of the highest number of cougar reports confirmed over the past 14 years. The previous high of seven confirmations in a single year was surpassed in 2019 when 11 reports were recorded, followed by 15 in 2020.

Norton said greater use of trail cameras by the public may be contributing to the increased number of cougar reports. (Check out the full list of 2021 cougar sightings 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.