NEWBERRY - A Schoolcraft County woman has reported to state wildlife officials she snapped a photo of an adult cougar while traveling recently on a dark road south of Seney, but officials said it is a doctored photo from Arkansas.
The photograph, submitted to Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials in Newberry June 8, was a print out of an image Merida Royster of Seney said she was having trouble sending electronically.
Several state employees trained in mountain lion identification confirmed the animal in the photograph was indeed a cougar. The photo, bleached by light, shows the animal walking, with a few trees in the background.
Here’s what DNR officials were given by a Seney woman, who claimed to have taken the photo near her home.
Royster, 29, said she was traveling home from a graduation party with her 4-year-old daughter on June 6 when she rounded a bend.
"The headlights of my car flashed on some eyes," Royster said.
Royster said she had her camera with her because she had taken it to the party. She said she quickly snapped five photographs as the animal crossed the road, including the one she showed to the DNR.
"It was a quick one, he was coming out of the woods," Royster said. "The four others are just a big flash. They didn't come out."
Royster took a DNR biologist and a wildlife supervisor to the area along the Old Seney Road, but could not relocate the spot she said the photo was taken.
Royster told the DNR the darkness made it hard to determine landmarks of the exact location. Rain had also fallen in the area, likely erasing any tracks.
After hours of investigation and examination, DNR officials now say they've determined the photograph and Royster's report are a hoax.
"This is absolutely a doctored photo," Terry Minzey, DNR wildlife supervisor for the eastern Upper Peninsula said Tuesday. "This is why we are sometimes skeptical about these reports. These hoaxes cost us time and money and controversy."
Royster maintains the photo is authentic.
"It's just a picture and I took it and that's all I can say," Royster said. "People can think what they want."
She said she's upset the DNR doubts her claim. She said she hadn't planned on bringing the photo to the DNR, but was urged to do so by friends who told her the DNR doesn't believe there are mountain lions living in the U.P.
Cougars, also known as mountain lions, originally were native to Michigan but were thought to have been extirpated around the beginning of the last century.
The last known wild cougar taken in Michigan was killed near Newberry in 1906. However, periodic sightings have been reported and DNA from a hair sample taken from a vehicle bumper in the U.P. in 2004 was positively identified as coming from a cougar.
Ironically, Royster's reported sighting and photograph came one day after the one-year anniversary of a U.S. Forest Service biologist's report of large tracks near Rapid River the DNR later determined were most likely from a cougar.
In that report, a DNR wildlife technician was able to relocate the track, determine it was about 10 hours old and follow it for about a quarter-mile before losing the trail.
Minzey said he was "duped" by Royster's story.
"I bought into everything she told me," he said. "I thought it was real."
While officials visited the scene of the false report, DNR personnel in Lansing were scouring Internet photographs, looking for a match.
Other wildlife photos, including albino moose pictures, have periodically been falsely reported as having been taken in the U.P.
"We had looked at over 300 photos," Minzey said.
Then, early Tuesday, Rory Mattson of the Delta County Conservation District, happened to see the Royster photo while in Lansing in the DNR Wildlife Division office. He told DNR officials he thought he had seen that image before.
This prompted another look by DNR personnel who discovered the cougar shot matched a photo published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in August 2003.
That image was taken at the Winona Wildlife Management Area west of Little Rock by a camera triggered by a heat sensor.
Minzey said Royster's photo proved to be a version of the Arkansas cougar picture, flipped and altered. The same trees are visible in both photos and the cougar is positioned the same way.
Minzey said he couldn't speculate what would prompt Royster to perpetrate the hoax.
"I haven't got a clue," he said.
Minzey said there's no legal action the DNR can take against those making false cougar reports.
"The best thing we can do is expose these hoaxes," he said.
Minzey said the DNR wants to encourage the public to continue to report cougar sightings, but he said false reports take money, time and effort away from other duties.
"We just spent a lot of the sportsmen's money tracking down a hoax at a time when there's no overtime and state employees are having to take furlough days," Minzey said.
Minzey said mountain lions have been gradually expanding their range eastward and are expected to eventually be found in the U.P.
Anyone who sees cougar sign should call the DNR, preferably the nearest local office or the Report All Poaching hotline at (800) 292-7800.