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Monday, November 19, 2012

Running through a Furrow

We received this letter from a resident of Auburn, Michigan. 

Dear recipient:

I just read an article in the Bay City Times about "Cougars Amoung Us" by John Flesher of the Associated Press, dated 11-4-01.  In the issue of "Michigan Out-of-Doors" that I just received today I read another article, "Lions on the Beach?" written by the editor, Dennis Knickerbocker.

To make certain that history is properly recorded, I contacted John Flesher about an actual physical encounter with a cougar that I had in western Bay County about 49 years ago.  I am contacting you for the same reason.

Mine is a true story if you are interested.  I will give some of the key elements of the enocunter.  The incident occurred on our farm which was located 0.9 miles north of Fisherville (which is in Bay County between Bay City and Midland).  My dad had a sawmill and had cut some large trees down in our small woodlot in preparation for sawing into lumber.  Some of these trees had fallen into a field which had been planted into sweet clover and alfalfa to be powed under for green fertilizer.  This was a very thick level of vegetation with the sweet clover about four to five feet high when my Dad started plowing.  I happened to be walking from our house to our barn when I saw my Dad waving me to come to the field.  He had just started plowing near the woodlot and had a swath about forty feet wide when I reached the north end of this swath.  He was approaching me from the south with the Farmall H and double bottom plow so I walked up the soft earth in his last furrow on the east side of the swath.  With the noise of the approaching tractor, and me walking in the bottom of the furrow with the soft black dirt, I didn't make any noise.  As my Dad and I got closer together I noticed something on my left moving slowly toward the plowed swath.  It moved the clover for a length at least four feet.  I had no idea what it was but for some reason I decided to run up the furrow and jump on the patch of moving clover as this approached the furrow.  I leaped as high as I could and landed directly on the patch of moving clover (it was too thick to see what was moving).  When I landed with both feet on the moving object I heard the most vicious snarling and hissing that I have heard in my life.  I leaped back into the air as fast as I landed.  My landing was several feet into the clover and when the animal got up and ran across the plowed ground I was totally shocked.  This was an actual cougar, mountain lion or puma as some call it.  It was in full view of the forty feet that it ran across the plowed ground and another hundred feet or so that it ran along the north side of our woodlot.  It was obviously injured because its body sagged a little and didn't run at what I believe should have been full speed.  I suspect that I broke some ribs or at least knocked most of the wind out of it.  If it had heard me coming I think that the outcome of the incident could have been much more serious.  After my dad stopped to talk to me about the incident he related why he motioned for me to come to the field.  He had not seen the cougar earlier.  What he did see was several large, approximately two foot diameter holes, around one large felled oak tree which he showed me.  There also was a large amount of dirt spread in a pile around each hole.  If I had known that there was a den of a large animals so close to me I certainly would not have jumped on the animal.

I know there are many references to the extinction of the cougar in Michigan in the late 1800's and early 1900's, but I can assure you that at least one still existed in Michigan as late as about 1952.

I thought that I would share this first-hand account. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hunters Contribute to the Cause

Hunters have something to crow about this year.  Seventy-five years ago, a coalition of conservationists – almost all of them hunters – pushed Congress to divert receipts from a 10 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition into a special fund for wildlife restoration.  The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, now usually referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, was enthusiastically supported by hunters and has exceeded all expectations.  It has funneled money to the states for non-game and endangered species restoration as well as traditional habitat work for game animals.

The tax was raised to 11 percent during World War II and now provides over $160 million annually for projects.  Excise taxes on handguns (since 1970) and archery equipment (1972) added $41 million and $25 million annually, respectively.  To date, $7.2 billion in PR funds have been granted to the states.

The “strings attached” include provisions that states can’t turn over P-R revenue to other (non-conservation) state programs and that they must employ trained wildlife specialists.  Also, grants are only available on a 3:1 matching basis so the DNR must come up with one dollar match for every three it receives.  Nationwide, more than half of the funds goes for purchase, maintenance and operation of wildlife management areas, while another large chunk of the funds goes for research projects.

The results have been very impressive.  In the first 50 years, a myriad of wildlife species including wild turkeys, white-tailed and mule deer, wood ducks, black bears, prairie chickens, pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain lion (cougars), bighorn sheep, caribou, beaver, bobcat, and sea otters made incredible comebacks with help from P-R funded projects and programs.  In Michigan, the state used P-R funds for acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres for use as game areas, completed habitat improvements on these and other state lands, re-introduced wildlife species, and conducted a variety of research projects.

To date, the Michigan DNR has received $261 million, the fourth highest total among the states.  Michigan got $12.3 million in 2012.  The match is usually provided by money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, so hunters and fishermen have a hand in both the granting and matching.  

Labor Day officially marked the 75th anniversary of the Pittman-Robertson Act, but the entire year of 2012 is a landmark for wildlife conservation.  While not everyone agrees that each dollar was well spent, there is no question that without P-R funds Michigan would not be the wildlife-rich state it is.  The Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950 taxed fishing equipment to similarly fund conservation work in rivers and lakes.

The future of this funding seems fairly bright, at least in the short term.  This August, preliminary results of a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed a nationwide nine percent increase in hunters and an 11 percent increase in fishermen between 2006 and 2011.  There was a 17 percent increase in anglers fishing in the Great Lakes.

Big-game hunters increased by eight percent since 2006, and migratory bird hunters by 13 percent.  Small game hunters declined in numbers by six percent.  

Spending was also up considerably, and that’s what directly affects P-R and Dingell-Johnson funds.  Many states including Michigan have been investing time and money into youth and women-oriented programs to boost recruitment of hunters and anglers.  Whether this effort, or other factors, has led to the greater numbers of hunters and fisherman has not been determined. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fishers and Martens: Weasels of the Trees

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the nine members of the weasel family that are found in Michigan.  More mustelids will be featured in future issues. 

The mustelids (weasel family) of Michigan include species that occupy a wide variety of habitats.  Some scurry across the land, one -- the badger -- is a digger, and otters and mink are at home in ponds and rivers.  Two species – the fisher (Martes pemmanti) and pine marten (Martes americana) – move through the trees with the greatest of ease.  They are capable of acrobatic catches of prey ranging from mice to birds to squirrels among the limbs of the tallest trees and can kill animals much larger than themselves on the ground.
Both species were listed as extirpated in Michigan by the early 1960’s.  But the smaller of the two – the pine marten – was written off before its time, and some naturalists suspect that the fisher also survived in small numbers.  Valued for its fur, the pine marten was declared by wildlife officials to be gone from Michigan by the 1950’s.  Even the authoritative 1983 book, Michigan Mammals by Rollin Baker, parroted statements from other biologists that intensive trapping and loss of habitat had eliminated martens from both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.  After pine martens stopped showing up in trapping records and field reports of biologists, the species joined wolves, cougars, and other predators on the list of extirpated species.  Wildlife biologists assumed that a combination of land development, logging and wild fires in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s wiped out any martens that had not been trapped.  

Actually, there were small remnant populations of pine martens in Michigan that went undetected, according to a 2006 peer-reviewed paper, “Evaluation of a Marten Reintroduction,” by Dr. Brad Swanson and L. Robert Peters of Central Michigan University and Christopher Kyle of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.  The authors noted that the Michigan pine marten population today is expanding and healthy from a genetic standpoint because of multiple reintroductions and follow-up relocations within the state.  They added, “The success was further aided by the presence of small remnant populations that remained in Michigan….”

In 1955-57, with the pine marten considered extirpated, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) obtained 27 martens from Ontario and two from British Columbia and released them in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon County in the western Upper Peninsula.  However, by 1962 there were no reliable reports of martens in the area and the planting was considered a failure.

In 1968, a new effort was launched with funding from the U.S. Forest Service as well as the DNR.  Between 1968 and 1970, another 99 martens from Ontario were released in Delta and Alger counties.  In 1978, the DNR, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the Michigan Marten Reintroduction Program.  The next year, a third planting of 148 Ontario martens was made in the Huron Mountains in Baraga and Marquette counties, and in western Iron County.  Finally, the DNR conducted several transfers in 1989-1992 that moved 20 martens from Iron to Chippewa, and 19 from the western U.P. to southern Keweenaw County.

In the Lower Peninsula, the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 85 pine martens in 1985-1986 in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, the Pigeon River Country State Forest, and the Pere Marquette State Forest.  As in the Upper Peninsula, monitoring has since showed small, slowly expanding populations near the release areas. 

The evaluation by Swanson, Peters and Kyle found that Michigan’s pine martens are now a genetically-diverse group unlikely to have reproductive and survival problems that often plague new populations that come from small numbers of re-colonizing animals.  They found no evidence of such a “genetic bottleneck.” So, the population is not limited by in-breeding.  In addition, the researchers also detected unmistakable genetic markers only found in Michigan.  These genetic sequences are not seen in Chapleau or British Columbia pine martens.  That means that remnant populations of Michigan martens had survived.  How large the remnant populations were, and their exact locations, may never be determined. 

Since Michigan now has expanding populations of pine martens, many people would consider those questions somewhat moot.  The remnant martens may have been so low in numbers that the populations would never have bounced back on their own.  Many wildlife species slowly become extinct when they are geographically and genetically isolated.  So, the reintroduction of pine martens starting in the 1950’s by the DNR was probably a good idea, especially since most of the animals came from a nearby (Ontario) source that was adapted to climate and vegetation conditions similar to those found in Michigan.  Michigan’s martens were probably not genetically distinct enough to be of biological significance. 

Fishers were also declared extirpated, and reintroduction efforts began in 1961.  About the size of a domestic cat, the species was, like the pine marten, highly valued for its fur.  They were certainly wiped out in some locations by the early 20th century.  The stocking program and trapping restrictions gradually led to increases in fisher numbers in the U.P.  But continued population monitoring showed a 70 percent drop in fisher numbers from 1996 to 2007.  That prompted the DNR to make changes in trapping rules to reduce the harvest of fishers beginning in 2011. 

There are some U.P. locales where it is now easy to find fisher tracks.  But there is a quiet controversy over the animal’s status in the Lower Peninsula.  The DNR says it has no verified reports of fishers in the Lower Peninsula.  However, some naturalists have reported fisher sightings and evidence such as tracks and scat from Emmet and Cheboygan Counties south as far as the Traverse City area.  Remnant fisher populations went undetected for many years in Montana until (as in the case of Michigan’s pine marten) genetic tests showed unique genes. 

One of the fisher’s claims to fame is its ability to kill porcupines.  The attacking fisher makes repeated bites to the face of the porcupine, eventually killing it.  When feeding, it avoids most quills, but ingests a few.  Thus, fisher scats often contain quills. 

Fishers also prey on snowshoe hares, showing great agility on snow.  They have oversized feet that help them stay on top of snow, but they struggle in powdery deep snow.  Their climbing prowess is linked to extremely flexible ankle joints; fishers can rotate their hind paws almost 180 degrees.  That lets them climb down head first – a great advantage when it is hunting in trees. 

A big male can weigh 18 pounds, yet fishers have been known to kill turkeys and are suspected of occasionally killing deer fawns.  One study in Maine found fishers responsible for at least four deaths of lynx.  It’s possible that fishers occasionally kill bobcats as well.  But, tales of their killing powers are probably exaggerated somewhat because they feed on carrion.  So, their stomachs and scats often contain evidence of animals they did not actually kill. 

Fishers and pine martens are now found in the same general areas, but most biologists think of the two species as separated ecologically by habitat type.  Fishers favor mature hardwoods, and martens do best in coniferous forests.  But recent studies suggest both fishers and martens can be found in second growth habitats.  Fishers will move to habitats with large pines in winter, following porcupines.  So, fishers and martens do occasionally occupy the same locales. 

Dr. Patrick Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs


Facts About Martens

·         In Michigan, the marten is usually referred to as the “pine marten” or American sable.  It has a fairly broad distribution across the northern part of North America, and there is a related species, the beech or stone marten, in northern Eurasia. 

·         Martens are similar to mink in size, with a head and body length of 14 – 17 inches and a tail about one-third that length.  They typically weigh about two pounds; males are larger than females. 

·         The brown fur of martens has long been valued.  Hides of martens were the third most numerous, behind beaver and raccoon, in furs exported at Michilimackinac in 1767.  Almost 10,000 were shipped that year.  Between 1835 and 1839, the American Fur Company in the Upper Peninsula and Detroit handled nearly 23,000 marten pelts.

·         Martens are born and reared in a hollow tree, a hole in a fallen log or stump, or in a rock pile.  Home ranges are 4-8 square miles for males, and typically about 1-2 miles for females.  They are generally solitary animals that associate with each other only briefly during mating times.

·         Martens tend to be nocturnal and have excellent vision, hearing, and sense of smell.  Like most weasels, they are very quick and can kill prey larger than themselves.  Major predators of martens include fishers, coyotes, bobcats, wolves and great horned owls.
·         The pine marten does best in fairly dense stands of pines, hemlocks, or firs where there are lots of large woody tree limbs and fallen trees on the ground.  Pine martens are excellent climbers and feed on squirrels (especially red squirrels), birds, small mammals, insects, and occasionally fruits and nuts. 

Facts About Fishers

·         Fishers are larger than pine martens.  Males are 31-41 inches long and can weigh up to 18 pounds.  Females are much smaller, usually weighing four to six pounds.  
·         Fishers lack the orange throat patches that distinguish martens.
·         Female fishers can delay implantation of fertilized eggs as long as 10 – 11 months and give birth to as many as 6 young.
·         Like pine martens, fishers are mostly nocturnal, but also hunt in daylight.  Fishers will often enter water and typically have home ranges of 50 to 150 square miles.
·         Its name is a misnomer because the species seldom feeds on fish or any other aquatic animal.  But fishers feed on carrion, so almost any kind of animal matter and  prey parts can show up in fisher scat.