Could it have been a cougar?

I was incredulous when I first heard that Becky recently encountered a cougar in the yard at The Houghton Lake Group Home. In broad daylight at something like one in the afternoon, no less. Well, I dunno, if I’d heard that some flibbertygibbet or other had seen a cougar in the yard at The Houghton Lake Group Home right in broad daylight, I’d have just gnauffed and gnauffed and gnauffed. But Becky is just about as far from being a flibbertygibbet as a person can get. But still, a *cougar*? Say what? It just did not compute.

There was much discussion and some people got onto the Google and they came up with the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. With a front-page article about cougars in mid-Michigan. Hmmm.

And then we were driving down old 27 after hiking at Beaver Creek and somebody said something about the cougar and suddenly I remembered the aminal I encountered on the nearby freeway a few years ago. I was driving my old Island Blue POC down from the Yoop to The Planet Ann Arbor. Mouse was asleep on the middle seat and Goose was asleep on the back seat. It was June and they had just finished up middle school and we’d been up there hanging around on the beach for a week or so.

We had left early that morning amid the usual barrage of octo-warnings about cops, deer, and speeding. You know, stuff like, “don’t drive it over 50 or the engine will blow up.” We were going down 27 near Houghton Lake when suddenly there *was* a big deer standing on the side of the road! I slammed on the brakes and if Mouse and Goose had not had seatbelts at least loosely belted around them, they’d’ve both lurched off their seats onto the floor. At any rate, it think it was a rather rude awakening. 😉

The deer didn’t jump out in front of me so I soon resumed my speed but the quick glance I got was enough to tell me that it was *not* a deer at all! But what *was* it? I have been wondering for *years* what the heck that aminal was. It was kind of dog-like or cat-like. It was way too big to be a fox or coyote and I *think* it was too big to be a wolf. I am also pretty sure that wolves are only in the Yoop at this point. *Cougar* didn’t even hit the radar screen. But now I wonder. It was certainly big enough. And the color was right.

I’m not really afraid I’ll meet up with a cougar at Houghton Lake but, when I walked early this morning, I have to admit that I occasionally scanned the swamp for big tan beasts. And then, I saw one! Over across the canal from me. Except that it wasn’t a cougar, it was just a deer getting an early morning drink of water.

4 Responses to “Could it have been a cougar?”

  1. Webmomster Says:

    I have a tan beast in my region. Large, erect ears. Golden-brown eyes. A roar that will send shivers down your spine. And he is the Biggest Beast in Michigan.

    Or so HE thinks!!

    [yeah, I’m talking about Alfred 😉 ]

  2. Valdemort Says:

    . . . a “roar” if only in a perpetual state of “I just inhaled a helium balloon!”

  3. fran Says:

    I;m sure you saw a cougar – maybe several tim es. They are reported around here frequently and some years ago the man at the high school who took care of maintenance saw one in his back yard. At that time he lived somewher up past Cam on the shore. Pretty interesting! Good weekend!


  4. Will Says:

    Michigan Outdoor News

    State’s cougar research is under scientists’ scrutiny

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 4:08 PM EDT

    Editor’s note: Following is a two-part series on cougar research in Michigan. Craig Springer is a freelance writer and biologist.

    By Craig Springer


    Lansing, Mich. – Cougars – do they live in Michigan? You may not want to base your opinion on the findings of some research coming out of Michigan. That’s the take-home message of a scientific paper set to be published in the journal, American Midland Naturalist.

    That paper, written by Al Kurta, of Eastern Michigan University, Michael Schwartz, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Experiment Station, and Charles Anderson, of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, raises objections to a paper written by Brad Swanson of Central Michigan University and Patrick Rusz of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy that was published in the same journal in 2006. The Swanson and Rusz paper stated eight cougars dropped scats in Michigan, based on DNA assessments conducted by Swanson in his CMU laboratory.

    But not so fast, said Kurta and his co-authors who have extensive experience in cougar biology and the science behind DNA. The techniques that Swanson used in his lab were faulty, they say. Swanson essentially claimed to distill DNA from animal scats to identify what species of animal dropped them. Kurta, Schwartz, and Anderson say Swanson used inappropriate methods and techniques for isolating DNA that in the end wouldn’t show the difference between lynx and cougar – or even domestic housecats.

    Swanson and Rusz claim in their 2006 paper that during the course of three years, crews of ‘two to three biologists’ wandered through places believed to harbor cougars, collecting a total of 297 scats. Of those 297 samples, Swanson claimed to extract DNA from only a dozen because they were so badly degraded. Swanson reported 10 scats as cougar; the other two were a canine and bobcat. From these data, Swanson and Rusz said that eight cougars roamed Michigan based on how far apart scats were found from each other.

    But that’s ‘pure speculation’ say Kurta, Schwartz, and Anderson – that you cannot infer separate identity from the scats based on the fact that they were collected during a 3-year period and that cougars are highly mobile, wandering hundreds of miles.


    That 10 out of 12 scats proved positive also is troublesome for Kurta and his co-authors, who call them ‘improbable results.’ They suggest that a 4 percent success rate (obtaining DNA from 12 of 297 total scats is 4 percent) would have been much higher had Swanson used the correct laboratory techniques, perhaps approaching a 90-percent success rate as other scientists they noted have done. Had Swanson done similarly, 223 scats of 297 scats collected would have proved positive.

    That yields this implication, say Kurta and his co-authors: ‘The high proportion of cougars among the samples identified by Swanson and Rusz and the absolute number of cougars that presumably would result if more samples actually had yielded amplified DNA seem improbable – especially without any supporting evidence in the scientific literature that a population occurs in the state.’

    Biologist Dave Hamilton is troubled by the numbers, too. Hamilton works for the Missouri Department of Conservation where he leads a team of scientists tasked with facing a reappearance of cougars in the Show Me State. To date, Missouri has documented 10 cougars, but with no evidence of reproduction. Hamilton has paid particular attention to the Michigan affair given what he’s faced in Missouri; because of his experience he was invited to speak before the Michigan Natural Resources Commission in 2006 to tell them what he’s learned and what to expect in the event cougars are found in Michigan.

    ‘It’s against all odds to haphazardly collect 297 scats that look like cougar in a place that has to date produced no cougars,’ Hamilton said, referring to the lack of a confirmed dead cougar or other verified supporting evidence that Kurta, Schwartz, and Anderson also say is lacking.

    ‘If cougars are present in any numbers, they will show up dead,’ Hamilton said. ‘Leading cougar biologists across the country have shown repeatedly, that the behavior of the species is sufficiently stereotypic – local populations of mountain lions should not be immune to detection. Verified dead bodies show up, and that hasn’t happened in Michigan.’

    ‘It’s as if the scats fell out of the Michigan sky,’ Hamilton said. ‘Field collection methods are not described (by Swanson and Rusz), they could not be replicated, and there is no reliable chain of custody described. Where is the rest of the evidence that supports the claim that free-ranging cougars exist in many areas of Michigan?’

    Non-biologist biologists

    It’s not just the percentages that are disquieting to Hamilton. It’s how the scats were collected.

    Swanson and Rusz acknowledged in their paper the volunteer ‘biologists’ that collected the scats in the wild for them, included Nancy Gagnon. She’s a transfer services coordinator at Michigan Tech, who collected two CMU-positive scats five minutes from her house near Houghton as part of an undergraduate course in mammalogy.

    Aaron Veselenak collected scats, too. Like Gagnon, he’s not a wildlife biologist; he holds a degree in political science and is a part-time history teacher at Alpena Community College. Veselenak, who volunteered with the MWC to pick up scats in his off-time, said that on three outings he collected 13 scats, two or three of which – he couldn’t remember exactly – were among the 10 that tested positive at CMU.

    ‘Incredible odds, and very unlikely,’ said Hamilton, about the efficacy of untrained personnel conducting scientific studies.

    Kurta and his co-authors raise the same concern that relates to non-biologists collecting scats. Even professional wildlife biologists often misidentify presumed cougars scats based on looks, they say.

    In an article written by Veselenak in the January/February 2007 issue of Michigan History magazine, he chronicles historic occurrences of cougar finds in Michigan, and cites Swanson and Rusz’s paper as part of ‘ironclad evidence’ of a ‘wild, breeding population of cougars roaming both peninsulas.’ Veselenak doesn’t mention in his article that he picked up some of the cougar-positive scats.

    Since the paper was published, the MWC has repeatedly said the paper proves cougars have always lived in Michigan – that they were never extirpated – even going so far as claiming cougars live in every Michigan county. But during several phone interviews, Swanson denied that claim.

    ‘I would not agree with everything that has come out of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy,’ Swanson said. ‘I’m trying to stay out of the debate – I did the genetics work – and if you are asking me does our data prove a relict population in Michigan, the only thing I will say with certainty is we had eight cougar scats – there were eight places in Michigan where cougars pooped.’

    Swanson does not rule out that the scats may have come from released pets, even with one of the 10 scats testing positive for the North American gene. Swanson, also in disagreement with the MWC, says the North America gene does not disprove an animal was a pet.

    ‘I am not trying to say these are not from released captive pets – even without claws it could take down a fawn,’ Swanson said.

    Cougars of South American origin often are used in the pet trade, but captive North American cougars also are used as pets, according to Swanson. Kurta and his co-authors say the scat of North American origin identified by Swanson may be the only valid one in their study.

    Cougar research is under the microscope

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 11:50 AM EDT

    By Craig Springer

    Editor’s note: Following is the second of a two-part series on cougar research in Michigan. Craig Springer is a freelance writer and biologist.

    Lansing – Controversy continues over the question of whether cougars reside in Michigan. A scientific paper set to be published in the journal American Midland Naturalist casts shadows on the findings of some of the research conducted in the state.

    That paper, written by Al Kurta of Eastern Michigan University, Michael Schwartz of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Experiment Station, and Charles Anderson of the Colorado Division of Wildlife raises objections to a paper written by Brad Swanson of Central Michigan University and Patrick Rusz of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy that was published in the same journal in 2006. The Swanson and Rusz paper stated eight cougars dropped scats in Michigan. Their findings were based on DNA assessments conducted by Swanson in his CMU laboratory.

    The first article in this series (Michigan Outdoor News, July 6 edition) examined the collecting and testing of scat. This article takes a further look at some of the scat issues and examines some of the other reported evidence of cougars in Michigan.

    Rusz recounted to the Detroit Free Press about he and MWC member and fellow scat collector Mike Zuidema collecting captive cougar scats and developing the ‘Escanaba Sniff Test’ for judging scats based on an acrid smell. Escanaba is Zuidema’s hometown.

    A MWC press release in May 2006 announced that the joint work of CMU and the MWC was the first attempt at finding DNA in scats from cougars in Michigan.

    But the first attempt failed.

    Rusz had sent scats to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s forensics lab for analysis in 2001. That first attempt at finding cougar DNA in scats failed to do so. By summer of 2002, Swanson had the scats, and more were to come in.

    Dee Dee Hawk, a geneticist with the Wyoming lab, said her lab made no conclusions from cursory analysis and stopped working with Rusz.

    ‘We were not able to confirm that scats were from cougar. We told him the results were inconclusive,’ Hawk said.

    The work of the Wyoming lab speaks differently than claims by Rusz.

    However, in the Detroit News, Oct. 6, 2002, Rusz said, ‘The Wyoming Fish and Game Laboratory in Laramie, and Central Michigan University, have analyzed many scat samples and much of it was determined to be from cougars. And, to clarify matters, the animals were North American cougars.’

    The Wyoming lab didn’t test for the South American or North American gene, according to Hawk.

    Swanson’s lab detected the North American gene in only one of the scats.

    Zuidema is also acknowledged in the paper as having helped collect cougar scats. He’s active in the MWC, having testified before the state Natural Resources Commission with Rusz and MWC executive director, Dennis Fijalkowski, in 2006. He is not a wildlife biologist; he is a retired forester formerly employed with Michigan DNR, who in a phone interview said that as a forester he ‘had nothing to do with wildlife’ and ‘didn’t work with animals specifically.’ According to an article written by Zuidema in the October 2006 issue of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine, he said in 25 years he’d acquired a collection of stories, ‘900 anecdotal reports,’ and other bits.

    Swanson and Rusz don’t describe in detail how the scats were picked up and how they were processed; the field collection methods are not well described, and could not be replicated in a scientific manner, as Missouri Department of Conservation biologist Dave Hamilton pointed out. Another CMU wildlife professor, Tom Gehring, who considered a GIS study associated with scat collections, declined to do so for the lack of rigor in the field collection methods. Swanson admits he doesn’t know how most of the scats were handled in the field. In contrast, his laboratory methods are meticulously described in the paper co-authored with Rusz.

    But Zuidema, through a phone interview and his own words in the Buckmasters story, sheds some light on field collection methods. Three of the 10 cougar scats that tested positive by Swanson passed through his hands. But only one of them did he actually find; the other two were collected by third parties.

    Bone of contention

    The Hannaville Indian Reservation is the source of another story told by Zuidema in the Buckmasters article. Zuidema claims that in 1984, a deer hunter shot a cougar in the paw; the cougar then disappeared on three good legs. At least two shattered bone fragments were acquired by then-DNR employee Zuidema the next year.

    Documents provided by Swanson reveal a well-traveled and well-studied path for the two fragments, one of which Rusz came to possess. The other, Zuidema kept.

    One bone went to the Michigan State Police crime lab. In a memo sent from Zuidema on Jan. 28, 1985 to Dave Larson at the crime lab, he said a positive find would be ‘our first proof’ of a cougar. He alerted Larson that for ‘a good double check,’ the other bone fragment he sent to the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences for analysis.

    The bone fragment was useless to the state police lab. That’s what Zuidema said in a letter to Swanson dated Dec. 12, 2004. But the sample sent to Colorado State University tested positive for cougar using a technique called electrophoresis. And so it has been reported ever since without the double-check Zuidema sought.

    The Dec. 12, 2004 letter written by Zuidema reveals more in these words: ‘Remember Pat (Rusz) sent you the piece Colorado used and it was cleaned of all blood.’ During the course of Swanson and Rusz’s scat study, Rusz sought to validate the 1985 bone fragment findings of Colorado State University, perhaps to include it in the American Midland Naturalist paper as had been done with the prehistoric cougar’s tooth segment, which Kurta and his co-authors did not criticize.

    But it wasn’t included in the paper, and for good reason; Zuidema got his double-check using modern technology 20 years after the first attempt.

    Using the same techniques used on the prehistoric tooth, Swanson’s analysis of the shattered bone shatters the story of a fleeing cougar. The bone came from a bobcat, so reported in May 2005.

    When asked in a phone interview if Zuidema used modern techniques to verify the bones were cougar, he said he no longer had the bones, and thought doing so was unnecessary.

    If Zuidema made an effort to correct the record with what Swanson found, it hasn’t worked. The bobcat bone is still touted as proof of cougars.

    Kurta and his co-authors conclude the following: ‘Overall, we are skeptical of the results of Swanson and Rusz. Given the lack of any direct testing of control lanes for domestic cats and Canada lynx, failure to follow Foran et al.’s protocol, and lack of confirmatory tests, we believe that their claim to have identified multiple samples as being produced by cougars is unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, we agree that the authors’ description of a partial sequence from a scat found in Delta County in 2001 appears consistent with haplotype M of cougars (the North American gene). Thus, all that we would feel comfortable in stating, based on Swanson and Rusz, is that the number of cougars documented in the scientific literature in Michigan since the early 1900s is now one.’

    Calls to the MWC requesting an interview were not returned.