ESCANABA - What is the state of cougars in the Upper Peninsula? This was the topic discussed recently at Bay College as part of the college's Strengthening Math and Science Colloquia series.
The event welcomed Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Brian Roell, who explained the biology of cougars and their existence in the U.P.
According to Roell, cougars have a much longer tail and different coloration than other similar cats, like bobcats and the Canadian lynx. They also lack white marks on the back of their ears, are generally not spotted, and have a longer body length.
In fact, while a bobcat measures around 3 feet long, an adult male cougar can reach lengths of 7 to 8 feet and weigh between 115 to 150 pounds, said Roell.
Sometimes cougars are hard to identify, forcing biologists to look at a cougar's head-to-body ratio for help.
"The head-to-body ratio is much longer in a mountain lion than it is in a house cat," noted Roell.
And though cougars are found primarily in the western states, they seem to be moving eastward.
The current estimated population of cougars in North America is approximately 30,000 to 40,000.
According to Roell, the DNR suspects sightings and trackings of cougars in the U.P. can be traced to South Dakota, which has a current population of about only 250 cougars.
He predicts there are 20 to 25 yearlings, mostly males, who will leave South Dakota to go somewhere unoccupied since dominant males, who preside over territory spanning a staggering 300 to 400 miles, are pushing younger males out.
"It appears that most male mountain lions are just hot-wired or hard-wired for dispersal," he said. "When they reach that age of 10 to 18 months they're moving out of those male territories. An adult male will not tolerate any other sexually mature males in its territory so he will just drive them out and kill them if given the chance."
There have been 22 confirmed sightings or cougar tracks discovered in the Upper Peninsula and some reports in the Lower Peninsula that remain unconfirmed. Though the first confirmed cougar in the U.P. was documented in 2008, Roell is not convinced this means there is a larger population in the state.
"There are groups out there that are claiming that there's probably 100 (cougars) in the Upper Peninsula...and probably half of that in the Lower Peninsula," said Roell. "I just say, 'Where is the evidence for that?'"
Roell noted there have been no roadkills of cougars nor has the DNR caught any in coyote traps, during research wolf trapping, or during track surveys of different wildlife species.
"That really, to me, is pretty heavy evidence that we just don't have that population that some groups are claiming. It's just not there," he added.
When someone reports a cougar sighting or cougar tracks with the DNR, a team conducts a site investigation, explained Roell. If a trail camera captures a photo of a cougar, the DNR will take a photo from that exact location to compare the two. They also take a GPS reading and photo of the GPS to verify.
"Before any picture or any track is considered confirmed, there's four members of the cougar team, and I'm one of them, but all four have to agree that that is a mountain lion before it becomes confirmed," he said. "There are some checks and balances so we're making sure that we're reporting factual information."
According to Roell, there have been many myths and conspiracy theories behind cougars, the most popular of which are that the DNR is bringing cougars into the area and that they do not recognize cougars because if they kill a person the DNR is held liable.
Roell said these accusations are false and reiterated that the DNR has recognized some sort of cougar population in the U.P. since 2008.
So what is the projected population growth for cougars in the U.P.?
"I think it's going to be pretty small," said Roell. "They've been going into Nebraska for probably 20 plus years and have just now documented breeding in the state of Nebraska. Minnesota has had multiple cats...but there's still no breeding in Minnesota. I think if they're ever going to be here, it's always going to be very low numbers. Mountain lions require such large territories, that you're never going to see real high numbers of them. We certainly have the habitat and the food resources for them to survive here but one of the big things is will people leave them alone? Will someone shoot one? They are fully protected in the state of Michigan so it is not a legal target."