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Friday, October 7, 2011

The Politics of Cougar Management

We recently had a question about cougars and our president asked me to post this article.  This was published in the September-October issue of The Wildlife Volunteer in 2010.  Comments are welcome. 

In January 2009 the Michigan Senate Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee held a hearing that concluded that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) was stonewalling the presence of wild cougars in both peninsulas.  Committee Chairman Gerald Van Woerkom stated that he wanted to get to the bottom of this situation at the hearing’s conclusion, but I have still not seen an analysis that ties all of the pieces together with a set of probable motives.   So, I am offering these ideas on how the dots connect on a fascinating wildlife story and a surreal bureaucratic one.
The DNRE actions that angered Senator Van Woerkom’s Committee included dismissing thousands of plausible cougar sightings as meaningless, disputing or ignoring a large body of credible physical evidence, and repeatedly suggesting that any cougars that do show up here must have wandered 1,200 miles from South Dakota’s Black Hills.  The agency is widely suspected of doing these things to dodge its responsibility to manage cougars under the Michigan Endangered Species Act, but it also has some equally important and less well-known Federal motivations.   
These potential Federal motivations surfaced in 2001 when the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy published a technical paper that provided strong evidence that cougars were never totally eliminated from Northern Michigan and that our present ones are descended from native animals.  This possibility is important because Michigan’s traditional native cougar is the Federally endangered Eastern cougar, a separate subspecies from the endangered Florida panther to the south and a common western subspecies across the Mississippi River.

Several Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states also have a few cougars that could conceivably be Eastern ones, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is conducting an Eastern cougar status review that will identify the locations that require field research.  Michigan should be a slam dunk research location because we have a large body of anecdotal cougar evidence from the 1930s to the present and numerous virtually irrefutable pieces of physical evidence that begin in 1966 and include clear photographs, sighting reports by DNRE personnel, and professionally verified hair, scat, tracks, and DNA.  (Interested readers can find more information on this evidence in a document entitled  “Milestones in the History of Cougars in Michigan” in the cougar section of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy website at )    

The USFWS has excellent research capabilities and could use harmless hair traps and advanced DNA techniques to determine how Michigan cougars relate to other cougar populations and to the historical Eastern cougar.  This research is not apt to identify our cougars as endangered Eastern ones for a variety of taxonomic and practical reasons, but it probably would find a geographically distinctive cougar population with some small DNA differences from its South Florida and Western cousins.  And it certainly would end the Michigan coverup by finding wild cougars.

However, nothing involving Michigan cougars goes this smoothly, and my occasional  exchanges with the USFWS’ Eastern cougar team suggest that it is not receiving much evidence from the DNRE and is not interested in evidence from the MWC regardless of its scientific merits.  This looks like a recipe for grossly understating the Michigan evidence, and the Cougar Network’s “Big Picture Map” web page adds to this concern by showing a ridiculously low three pieces of Michigan cougar evidence.  This figure actually raises a whole set of concerns because of the Cougar Network’s close ties to the USFWS and state wildlife agencies, but my purpose here is to simply show how the USFWS study created potential motives for denying cougars and cougar evidence.
Those frequent DNRE insinuations that any cougars in Michigan must be wanderers from South Dakota’s Black Hills mesh with the agency’s forgetfulness about historical evidence and reluctance to accept new Michigan evidence.  The Black Hills cougar population did increase substantially in the 1990s, and an occasional male could conceivably have wandered to Michigan after the Black Hills became crowded by cougar standards.  However, 1,200 miles is a very long trip for a male cougar and even more unlikely for a female.  And eighty years of sightings and other evidence suggest that Northern Michigan had a small breeding population of cougars decades before the Black Hills population reached visible proportions.  As a result, the Black Hills scenario is extremely questionable and looks like a backup effort to discourage USFWS interest in Michigan cougars by portraying them as common western ones. 
While this is speculative, the dots tell me that a few DNRE managers are so opposed to managing a charismatic carnivore that they are willing to ignore Michigan law, conveniently forget a large body of historical evidence, and understate the evidence portion of an important Federal scientific study to avoid doing so.  Needless to say, this could not be happening without the fundamental problem of a broken oversight process.   

The DNRE does deserve credit for establishing a cougar team of specially trained biologists that has been conducting professional investigations and confirming cougar evidence in the Upper Peninsula for the past two years.  However, everyone also needs to remember that Michigan has an 80 year record of cougar evidence, and that our cougar history did not begin in 2008 when the cougar team began confirming evidence.  And cougar team investigations have been curiously absent in the Lower Peninsula.

Bill Taylor
Michigan Wildlife Conservancy

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