This past June marked the first time a cougar sighting in Michigan’s lower peninsula was ever confirmed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
But most residents of Bath Township, where the cougar was photographed, weren’t surprised. There have been rumors and unconfirmed cougar sightings for years.
Martha Mikko is a Bath resident who saw a cougar in her yard several years ago.
“Well I was sitting in our screened in porch just relaxing and I heard a rustle over near our woodshed. So I quick stood up to see if I could see it, and I didn’t see it there where I heard it, but I saw it running across the yard diagonally.”
She says it didn’t even register right away that she was looking at a cougar.
“When I first saw it it was a very strange feeling because my brain couldn’t quite figure out what I was looking at. It looked almost like a computer generated graphic animation.”
She wasn’t able to take a photo, but she watched as it ran away.
“Our yard is pretty large so I got to watch it a nice long time. It turned a little bit at the back of our garden and then continued into the field which is a huge meadow. And that was it. Big excitement.”
She called the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy at the Bengel Wildlife Center in Bath to report it. Since she didn’t have a photo and didn’t find clear prints, it was added to the list of unconfirmed sightings.
Dr. Patrick Rusz is director of wildlife programs at the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy and he’s been doing cougar research for seventeen years.
“I was the first person who went to the scene, the day after I had received a report that a cougar had been photographed there. I took the various measurements, decided in my mind it certainly was a cougar. I passed the information on to the DNR which subsequently confirmed it a few days later.”
It’s not as unusual as you might think to see a cougar in the lower peninsula. Dr. Rusz says they’ve found just as good evidence of cougars down here as in the U.P.
“Most of the ones that we think are resident cougars are north of here quite a bit. I suspect that some of them venture down here into the Bath area and other places in lower Michigan occasionally. That’s the big question. Was the one seen in Bath a resident cougar that parks down here and has a legitimate home range at least for awhile or is it a cat that’s looped down from northern Michigan?”
He encourages citizens to report any sightings, because that information is invaluable to them. They may decide to go out to do field studies, but they will likely wait until winter when they can find and follow cougar tracks in the snow.
After the confirmed sighting, Dr. Rusz led an information session at the Bengel Wildlife Center and about 70 people showed up. Many had questions and concerns about safety. Cougars are protected under the Endangered Species Act, so killing them isn’t allowed unless it’s to protect human life. But Dr. Rusz says if you encounter one, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. There haven’t been any cougar attacks on humans in the last hundred years or so.
“The standard advice is to make yourself look as big as possible. If it does approach, that’s the time to start throwing things and hollering a lot. But what they don’t recommend is that you turn your back to it and run.”
He says Michiganders have coexisted with wildlife for some time now, and for the most part, everyone is carrying on normally.
“I’m very happy that, to my knowledge, no one in Bath township where the photo was taken has radically changed their lifestyle because of this. Joggers still go jogging down the road, people keep riding bikes, and life goes on for both the people and the cougar.”
Meanwhile, some other Bath residents have used the cougar sighting as an opportunity to raise money. Bath High School teacher MaryAnn Boylan and some of her students decided to make a t-shirt. She describes the design.
“Well it says 'there’s a cougar in my bath' and then there’s a picture of a bathtub with a cougar sudsing himself with his brush and his bubbles. It’s just fun and happy.”
They’re selling them for ten dollars, and giving the proceeds to the local senior center.
To find out more about cougars in Michigan, or to report a sighting, visit MI Wildlife's website.