The Michigan Department of Natural Resources reports 14 confirmed cougar sightings in 2020, all located in the Upper Peninsula. That's the highest number reported since 2008, when the DNR first began tracking cougars.
The sightings were spread across seven counties: three of the sightings were in Delta County, three were in Luce County, and another three were in Mackinac County. The others were spread across Baraga, Chippewa, Ontonagon, and Schoolcraft Counties.
Cody Norton is a large carnivore specialist for the DNR. He says the reason we've seen more cougars in recent years is increased accessibility and ease of use with technology.
"And I think a lot of that is trail cameras, honestly. We have a lot more hunters out in the woods and other folks using trail cameras. they’re becoming cheaper, they’re becoming easier to use."
Before, Norton says, DNR officials might get a report from someone who thought they found a cougar print, and they'd ask them to put a bucket over it so it wouldn't get snowed on and hope they got to the location as soon as possible.
The photographic evidence, he says, makes it easier to verify actual cougar sightings. Also important in confirming cougar sightings is having something to get a sense of size and scale.
"We have a lot of misidentifications of house cats and bobcats. It might seem like oh man, that's totally different, or that'd be easy to tell, but sometimes people get photos of a cat in a cut corn field, or a dirt field, and there's nothing for scale. It's got the general shape and outline of a cougar, but there's nothing really to judge the size."
Norton says all the cougars they've seen have been male, and are not native to Michigan, but are typically from western states.
"All the evidence we have and basic cougar biology kind of shows that most likely we just have these males that take off from their native home ranges and set up shop here, temporarily, but they typically don’t stick around. They’re kind of just cruising through."
Norton says there have been two cougar sightings so far in 2021, 12 miles apart in the Upper Peninsula.