Greenville bear is legit
by BETH ALTENA
“There are lots of things in this world to be worried about, being attacked by a cougar is not one of them. You are much more likely to have a problem with a neighbor’s dog.” The statement was from DNR Wildlife Specialist John Niewoonder of the Plainwell office regarding a string of four recent cougar sightings in Rockford.
The latest sighting was called in by a local real estate agent who was showing a home off the Rogue River last week and saw a cat she estimated at 150 pounds walking along the riverbank near the new Rockford nature trail. The same person also talked recently with another Rockford resident who spotted a big cat near Lake Bella Vista a week ago and heard of another person who reported a sighting near Young Avenue and Bush Street east of Rockford.
All sightings may be related to a Squire article which showed a print of an alleged cougar in Blythefield at the Rogue River, found in the morning after one of this winter’s infrequent snowfalls.
According to Niewoonder, biologists with the natural resources in western states, where the cats are known to frequent, examined the picture of the print posted on the Squire’s website and determined it was a dog. According to his experts, mountain lion prints will never show a claw mark. “Their claws are retracted into the paw while walking, so prints usually turn out to belong to dogs. Cougars have very distinctive prints.”
He said he expected cougar sightings to follow. “I don’t know if it is a social thing or a cultural thing, but once you start talking about a cougar sighting, you get all kinds of sightings. I don’t know if it is just how people’s minds work or a phenomenon.”
Michigan has had confirmed mountain lions, Niewoonder stated, but those were in the Upper Penninsula. He also admitted that lions are known as a traveling animal that can go hundreds of miles, so it is possible a mountain lion passed this area. If it did, he said, no one would be likely to see it.
“We had one captured in the western states—North Dakota or one of those—and was captured again in an eastern state, so it could move through Michigan. However, the vast majority of cougar sightings in this state are likely a large housecat or imagination,” said Niewoonder.
He said the animals’ mobile nature also testify against the chance one cat is hanging around Rockford to be spotted over a period of weeks or months. He also doubts a sudden burst of passing cougar activity across Michigan, which happens to be evident by sightings in Rockford and nowhere else.
“I don’t want to call anyone a liar or question what they thought they saw,” he said.
Niewoonder noted that mountain lions are very large animals; including their tail, they can be eight or nine feet long and up to three feet at the shoulder.
“We have a cardboard cutout and will take it to where people thought they saw a cougar. When we put it out as far as the cougar they saw was, there is nowhere the same size as what they saw.”
Niewoonder also said cougars are very wild animals who don’t like nearing human habitation. He doubted a cougar would cross a human foot bridge or approach a home. In addition, they are animals that prefer dusk and dawn for their activities and aren’t as likely to be seen in broad daylight or dead of night.
Niewoonder acknowledged a misconception that the MDNR has a tendency to deny a cougar presence in Michigan. “There are quite a few bobcats around and we have people who run them with dogs. I guarantee if cougars were out there those guys and their dogs would have come across them.”
He also stated that in states where there are cougars, cougar/car incident are not uncommon. “They are really bad at being around cars. Where you have cougars, you have dead cougars in the roads.”
“I don’t know what to tell them, but I don’t believe it,” Niewoonder said of people who think they have seen a cougar. “We have a lot of evidence that there are not cougars in Michigan. If even ten percent of sightings were legitimate, that would still be an awful lot of cougars in Michigan.”
He also said if cougars were here, we wouldn’t see them and noted that the big cats, like the big bobcats, aren’t very often sighted when they are an established population.
Bears, he noted, are different, and aren’t shy about approaching human homes or getting into trash cans looking for food. They, like cougars, are not normally a threat to humans. “That bear just was disoriented and trying to get away from people,” he stated.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I remember years ago working up at The Cedar Springs Post, my sister’s newspaper, typing stories one evening probably more than 15 years ago and hearing the scanner go off with a cougar sighting. The caller was clearly very distressed, begging the police to come immediately as she was in fear of her life, the life of neighborhood children and pets. It was a pretty exciting call to hear and I waited anxiously to see what the cougar’s fate would be. When officers arrived on the scene and checked back with dispatch, they sounded amused to report a quite fat housecat in the back yard as the source of the excitement.