TRAVERSE CITY — A single student sat immersed in his mobile device at the back of the school bus when a large, furry creature bounded across the road several bus lengths ahead.
Karen VanDusen, a Traverse City Area Public Schools bus driver of seven years, was nearing the end of her route May 26 between 3:15 p.m. and 3:25 p.m., returning to Traverse City along Rennie Lake Road nearing Supply Road when the large animal dashed across the road.
“What I noticed was the big, round head and the long tail. It wasn’t fluffy,” she said of the large animal. “At first, I thought it was a deer because it was so big, then I saw the tail. It was such a big cat. Other than a zoo, I’d never seen a cat that big.”
VanDusen brought the bus to a near-stop close to the spot where the cat crossed and entered the wooded area along the roadway. She yelled to the student to look out the window in hopes of catching a glimpse but the animal disappeared into the dense woods by the time they reached the point where it scatted off into the woods. She only saw the animal for a few brief seconds, as it took three to four bounds to cross in front of the bus, but VanDusen is convinced it was a cougar.
Bus cameras rolled during the encounter and, unfortunately, failed to capture neither hide nor hair of the animal, according to TCAPS Transportation Director Tyson Burch.
The Department of Natural Resources receives dozens of calls each year from residents with sighting information and others who found a paw print they believe was left by a cougar. Tim Lyon, wildlife technician at the Traverse City DNR office, said it is hard to gauge the amount of calls they receive at the office each year. He said the office did not receive information on VanDusen's sighting, but did not rule out the possibility of one or more of the large cats in the area.
“I would say it’s possible,” he said. “However, we have yet to confirm them in the northern Lower Peninsula.”
DNR officials first look for tracks when responding to cougar sighting reports, examining the way the paw pads splay apart and measuring the size of the track with a tape measure. Officials respond in-person to each report because photos of the tracks alone do not provide an accurate scale of the print, Lyon said.
Kevin Swanson, wildlife management specialist with the wildlife division at the Marquette DNR office, works with a team of biologists and cougar experts who receive calls state-wide, from metro Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, each year from callers claiming to have seen a cougar and others wishing to share evidence, like a trail cam photo or paw print.
He wasn't able to put an exact number on the amount of calls they receive, but was confident in saying the amount was in the hundreds each year. Many calls are found to be the result of a caller confusing a cougar or cougar prints for those of a bobcat, coyote, or domestic cat. The most pronounced difference in the prints are found in the size, as cougar prints can be up to 3 1/2 inches wide and 3 1/2 inches long, while bobcat tracks typically have dimensions of less than two inches, Swanson said.
There have been no confirmed cougars in the Lower Peninsula, while 35 cats have been confirmed in the Upper Peninsula, though Swanson said there has been no evidence found to suggest a breeding population. Most of the cougars likely roamed east from North and South Dakota, moving through Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"They have huge dispersal routes that could be hundreds and hundreds of miles," he said. "We have the habitat here and the possibility that some day we could have a cougar population."
Lyon said an encounter with an existing cougar could be hazardous.
“Like any other large carnivore, there is a possibility for a dangerous situation to occur,” he said.
Sue Jennings, Sleeping Bear Dunes wildlife program biologist, said her office receives occasional calls from visitors claiming to have seen a cougar, with most mistaking a bobcat for a cougar. She said the office rarely investigates sightings anymore because of staffing.
The park formerly posted signs at various areas warning visitors of the possible existence of cougars with further information on the dangerous cat species, which Jennings said could be more aggressive toward young children.
"A cougar will attack," she said.
VanDusen's eyewitness account adds to a collection of sightings during her bus route, including a bear that crossed the road in front of her bus one morning about two months ago on River Road.
“I expected to see deer, but I’ve also seen muskrats, lots of birds and turkeys,” she said. “I never expected to see a cougar.”