SCIENTIFIC STUDY FINDS COUGARS AT EIGHT MICHIGAN SITES

FOR MORE INFORMATION Dennis Fijalkowski (517) 641-7677 Pat Rusz (989) 865-6701 SCIENTIFIC STUDY FINDS COUGARS AT EIGHT MICHIGAN SITES BATH – The first attempt in Michigan to find cougars (mountain lions) by analyzing DNA in animal droppings suggested the presence of at least eight different cougars in scattered study areas. Dr. Brad J. Swanson, a geneticist and an Assistant Professor of biology at Central Michigan University, and Dr. Patrick J. Rusz, Director of Wildlife Programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy (MWC), have co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific paper, “Detection and Classification of Cougars in Michigan Using Low Copy DNA Sources.” It was published in the April 2006 issue of the American Midland Naturalist, a publication of Notre Dame University. The article contains the first-ever, peer-reviewed evidence of multiple cougars east of the Great Plains, outside of Florida. The study found the state-listed endangered species in some of the most remote parts of Michigan, at widely-separated sites in Delta, Dickinson, Menominee, and Houghton counties in the Upper Peninsula, and in the Lower Peninsula counties of Alcona, Emmet, Presque Isle, and Roscommon. In the springs of 2001, 2002, and 2003, a total of 297 scats (droppings) were collected from 12 areas of Michigan that had long histories of cougar sighting reports. DNA from cells that fell off digestive tract walls, and contained in the scat of source animals, produced 10 DNA profiles identified as from cougars. One scat was found to be from a bobcat and another from a member of the dog family. The others produced no readable results. The scat that produced the most DNA information was from the Delta County animal and revealed a DNA sequence long enough to determine it was from a North American cougar. If a DNA sequence shows South American markers the cat is assumed to be of pet origin because many cougars in captivity are of South American origin. The DNA sequence of the Delta County cougar contained the same characteristic genetic material as found in all native cougars in North America and in a sample the researchers analyzed from a cougar skull more than 500 years old. The skull was unearthed by archeologists in a pre-settlement Native American burial site in Saginaw County and housed at the Michigan State University Museum. The cougar was long thought by wildlife officials to have been extirpated from Michigan by the early 1900s. However, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) placed the cougar on the state list of endangered species in 1987 after evidence had mounted that cougars roamed at least the Upper Peninsula. The presence of cougars was again acknowledged in a 1994 book summarizing a MDNR-sponsored review of evidence on endangered and threatened wildlife of Michigan. “Some results of the study by Swanson and Rusz were released three years ago because of their management implications,” said David Haywood of Lansing, President of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy. “MDNR officials have often stated that any cougars actually seen must be escaped or released pets, and there has been no state-sponsored field research on cougars.” While Swanson and Rusz noted that genetic analyses alone could not determine the origin of the cougars or prove breeding, they stated, “Our suggestion that at least eight cougars were in Michigan over the three years of this study would seem to cast doubt on the suggestion that all the animals were released pets.” Most of the documented cougars were found in very remote locations. Their findings also support the work of other scientists who have found no basis for the classification scheme of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that has long recognized numerous subspecies of North American cougars. The federal agency lists the historical cougar in the Lower Peninsula as the long-extinct eastern cougar. In fact, according to Swanson and Rusz, at least some cougars in the Lower Peninsula were genetically the same as is currently found, and was historically found throughout North America. In February 2005, the MDNR released results of DNA analysis of hair taken from the car bumper of a motorist who claimed to have hit a cougar in Menominee County. The results were positive for cougar and the location of the cougar-car collision was less than 10 miles from a scat found to be cougar by Swanson and Rusz. The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy hopes this study is the first of many scientific endeavors to document the status of cougars in Michigan and elsewhere in the Eastern United States. Michigan Wildlife Conservancy PO Box 393 6380 Drumheller Rd. Bath, MI 48808 Phone: 517-641-7677 Fax: 517-641-7877 [email protected] Become a member of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy today! Your gift will help save our natural heritage for future generations and support our environmental training programs at the Bengel Wildlife Center, in Bath. For only $35/year, you'll receive six issues of "The Wildlife Volunteer," Michigan's premier newsletter about wildlife. To join or learn of other member benefits, visit http://www.miwildlife.org/.