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The Great Cougar Cover Up

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Remember the lone, wandering cougar that was shot and killed by Chicago police?

Some wildlife experts say it may not have been alone and may not have wandered so far. Are government officials in the Midwest covering up a dangerous and growing cougar population?

In some places, they're called mountain lions. Around here, they're known as cougars.

There are questions about whether government officials here in the Midwest are waging "the great cougar cover-up" by ignoring evidence and disavowing the wild cats' existence.

We know how one cougar's journey ended in the back yard of a Roscoe Village home. But Illinois authorities still don't know is where its journey began.

Although genetic analysis isn't complete, initial tests suggest the cougar made a 950 mile trip to Chicago from South Dakota. Wildlife experts interviewed by the I-Team say it's more likely the cougar came from much closer.

"I stopped. It frightened me," said witness Wendy Chamberlain.

Chamberlain investigates livestock attacks as township supervisor in Parma, Michigan. After documenting numerous accounts of cougars killing farm animals, Chamberlain herself saw one a few months ago near her home.

"It walked and went into the grass in this area right here," she said.

"We think the population is probably around 100 adults," said Dennis Fijalkowski, Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.

Fijalkowski's wildlife organization says there is a native population of cougars born; bred and residing in Michigan.

"I think we have 1,500 sightings in the last five years. But we estimate that is just a fraction of the total. A lot of people won't come forward because they've been made fools of for so long by the state," said Fijalkowski.

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has catalogued evidence; done their own DNA testing and obtained a video of cougars in far southeastern Michigan.

When the woman who shot the video showed it to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, officials told her they were common house cats.

A local video production company with experience in law enforcement cases tested the state's theory by putting a common house cat in the same spot the woman photographed the suspected cougar, and they compared its size to a 6-foot tall man in the middle and the suspected cougar on the left. Conclusion: it was no house cat.

Some cougar experts say it's more likely Chicago's cougar came from the upper peninsula of Michigan than South Dakota, but DNR officials in both states say they have no cougar populations.

"Could be ten, 20 or hundreds of cougar sightings in a year. But many turn out to be dogs, coyotes," said Dan Ludwig, Illinois DNR biologist.

The Illinois DNR has verified only three cougars here since the late 1800s, and those have been within the past several years. In the last six weeks, Illinois DNR biologists have investigated a dozen reports of cougars in metro Chicago and verified none.

"All the evidence we looked at came out negative," said Ludwig.

In Michigan, retired DNR forester Mike Zuidema says he was ridiculed when he reported seeing a cougar. Zudiema has now documented 1,100 cougar sightings in upper Michigan since the 1950s and believes authorities are trying to hide a growing cougar population.

"It was a cover-up initially related to budgets," he said.

He says state officials didn't want to pay the costs of managing a new endangered species and that recently a high-ranking Michigan DNR official told him there is a disinformation campaign underway.

"We have been told that when we talk to the press and news channels, not to say it was a mountain lion. You can say the tracks were consistent with mountain lions. Or it probably was a mountain lion. But don't actually say it was a mountain lion, even if you think so," said Zuidema.

That noncommittal approach was taken when the I-Team asked a Michigan DNR official whether there are cougars in his state.

"The department is looking at it. We feel that there is a possibility that there could be individuals scattered," said Adam Bump, Michigan DNR.

And even though some wildlife experts say Illinois could now have a breeding cougar population, DNR officials here also deny it.

"We do not feel there is a viable cougar population in Illinois. But what we do have possibly is transient animals, or what biologists say are dispersing animals, animals coming from their home area where they were born looking for another area," said Ludwig.

The cougar issue was magnified last month when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley received threatening letters complaining about the animal shot and killed by police. The FBI is now investigating whether those threats are connected to an arson next to Daley's vacation home in Michigan.

(Copyright ©2014 WLS-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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