ROGERS CITY - Last summer, the unmistakable bushy tail and ears of a cougar were spotted by Craig Billings as he drove from Posen to Rogers City on M-65. It was late afternoon when the cat appeared out of the roadside growth. It was "gone in a flash," he said, even so, Billings is convinced he saw one of the most elusive creatures to live in Michigan.
Cougars are alive and well in regions of the Lower Peninsula and much of the Upper Peninsula, according to the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the organization, said despite what the Department of Natural Resources tries to convey, there are approximately 100 cougars currently living in Michigan.
Fijalkowski gave a presentation at the Rogers City Senior and Community Center Tuesday during which he provided numerous examples of cougar sightings across the state. Counties including Presque Isle, Oscoda and Alcona were among them and rightfully so, he said, as the Northeast Michigan region has some of the best cougar habitat in the Lower Peninsula.
Human population density impacts cougar population such that there is very little habitat remote enough to sustain cougar life, Fijalkowski said. Historically, the purchase of land in Northeast Michigan for hunting camps in 1910-1920 promoted cougar life. Property owners maintaining woodland within the fence lines of their hunting camps warded off deer poachers and by extension provided prime land and prey for cougars. Whitetail deer is the chief prey of cougars, and it has evolved to perfectly kill deer with a single bite.
"These are cats that evolved here, and these are cats we want here because they're Michigan cats," he said.
A tennis ball-sized brain stores hunting information that singles out four-legged animals as preferred prey. For this reason, Fijalkowski said never to bend over to pick up a stick or rock with which to defend yourself against a cougar if one should approach. Bending over will liken the human body to a deer and trigger an attack, he said. Instead, stand on tip toes and spread arms wide to look as big as possible. Walk slowly backward and away from the cougar.
"You cannot outrun a cougar. You have to have a better strategy," Fijalkowski said.
The DNR confirmed one cougar living in the Upper Peninsula in 2009, but it has not confirmed any living in the Lower Peninsula. Fijalkowski asked members of the audience to raise hands if they had spotted a cougar; 20 said they had.
Jerome Hentkowski lives on Long Lake Road, and he said he saw a cougar last year near hunting camp property while driving home from Posen. The Alpena County sighting was not his first, he said.
Despite DNR skepticism, Fijalkowski estimates there are 100 cougars living in Michigan split equally between each peninsula. He and other members of the conservancy have tracked the animal and discovered footprints and scat distinguishable to the cat.
"We think that the cat is out of the bag on cougars in Michigan," he said.
But the DNR is hesitant to acknowledge the population because to do so would cost money, Fijalkowski said. Unlike the wolf population in Michigan, which is supported in part through federal money, there is no funding to seek out and protect the cougar, he said. But he and his teammates are not giving up on the predator.
"We have to find a way to restore a small remnant population, a genetically viable population," he said.
Erika Fifelski can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5688.