Although the puma – the most widely distributed large cat of the Western Hemisphere – is famously elusive, our era of trail cameras and smartphones has served up more than a few rare records of the lithe beast in predatory action.

From British Columbia to California, pumas – also commonly called mountain lions or cougars – have been photographed or filmed taking down deer, overall their most important North American prey.

But what makes this new piece of puma/deer footage we’re presenting to you here really noteworthy – aside from the remarkably well-framed view of the big cat locking onto the deer’s throat and then dragging off the carcass – is where it happened: not somewhere in the American or Canadian West, where mountain lions remain widespread, but on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (aka the “UP”), in the US Midwest. And rather than the mule or black-tailed deer that western pumas commonly take down, the victim here is a white-tailed deer.

Eli Schaefer scored the low-odds video on his trail cam near Toivala, Michigan, situated on the UP's Keewenaw Peninsula, late last year. Schaefer told Outdoor Life he was originally going to delete the trail cam cards without checking the footage, but decided to briefly review them earlier this month to see whether any whitetail bucks had managed to survive the latest hunting season.

“So I played it,” he said in the Outdoor Life article, “and I was like, oh my God. I got chills just thinking about how easily I could have been standing there, and that thing could’ve jumped on me.”

(They may be among a deer’s worst nightmares, but pumas only very rarely attack people, to be clear.)

Last October, Schaefer captured a cougar on a trail cam set up about a mile from this spot, and reckons this deer-killer is the same cat – a theory that Denise Peterson of Utah Mountain Lion Conservation, a former Michigan resident, agreed with. Peterson also told Outdoor Life that the puma in Schaefer’s footage is almost assuredly a large adult male (or tom).

Pumas are native to Michigan, but were extirpated between the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the last legally harvested puma was taken in 1906 on the UP. But Schaefer’s trail-cam capture – while particularly significant for the predatory behaviour it records – is only the latest in a whole slew of pumas confirmed in the state in recent years.

There have been more than 75 verified sightings of pumas in Michigan since 2008, all but one of them on the UP, which by Midwestern standards is quite wild and thinly populated, and which forms the eastern part of a contiguous swath of heavily forested terrain widely known as the “North Woods” that stretches westward into northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Those two states have also recorded numerous puma confirmations this century. Last fall, for instance, a bowhunter in Buffalo County, Wisconsin shot a young male puma – the first killed in that state in more than a century – from a treestand out of what he claimed was self-defence.

The Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains of the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. All but one of the more than 75 verified sightings of pumas in Michigan since 2008 have occurred on the UP.

Two of the documented Michigan cougars since 2008 were poached, and DNA analysis of their carcasses found genetic connections to established puma populations in South Dakota – indicating likely wild origin and natural dispersal, in other words. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does not presently believe the state to host a breeding stock of cougars. It’s thought that these Michigan pumas, like the one Schaefer’s trail cam captured, have probably all been males. Given, as in many carnivore species, young male cougars typically disperse longer distances than females, this further suggests these UP cats hail from western populations, and could be part of a vanguard attempting to recolonise former habitat in the Midwest.

Perhaps the best-known of dispersing eastern cougars was the tom that roamed more than 2,414 kilometres (1,500 miles) from the Black Hills of South Dakota, which support a breeding population, to the US East Coast. Killed in 2011 on a Connecticut highway (within shouting distance of New York City), that peripatetic puma is thought to have passed through the UP on its spectacular, if ill-fated, odyssey. (In 2008, another high-profile Black Hills disperser, a healthy and apparently well-fed 68-kilogram [150-pound] tom, found its way to the big city of Chicago, Illinois, where it was killed out of public-safety concerns by police officers.)

The Michigan DNR verified the first puma sighting on the state’s more populous Lower Peninsula in modern times in June 2017, but noted that it wasn’t clear whether that puma, photographed in Bath Township, had a wild or captive origin. “There is no way for us to know if this animal is a dispersing transient from a western state, like cougars that have been genetically tested from the UP, or if this cat was released locally,” a member of the DNR’s Cougar Team said in a statement at the time.

This trail-cam photo, captured on 1 October 2018, marks the 38th confirmed report of a cougar in Michigan since 2008. Image © Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Separated from the UP by two Great Lakes (Michigan and Huron) and bounded to the south by a much more built-up and peopled landscape, the Lower Peninsula would certainly appear to be a harder-to-reach destination for a dispersing puma. “While cougars have a route of suitable habitat eastward through Minnesota and Wisconsin into the UP,” the Detroit Free Press explained in 2021, “for a cat to make it into the Lower Peninsula would require either crossing miles of frozen Great Lakes ice from the UP, or coming around the barriers of Lake Michigan and heavily populated areas around Chicago and northern Indiana.”

“The largest block of historic puma range in all the Americas that does not currently support breeding puma populations comprises the Midwest and Eastern USA,” wrote the authors of a Biodiversity & Conservation paper published last year that assessed potential puma habitat in this region. The comparatively smaller swath of historic puma country in eastern Canada similarly mostly lacks a breeding population. The main puma outpost in eastern North America at this point is southern Florida, where the unique cougar variety known as the Florida panther clings to survival amid fragmented subtropical wildlands.

That 2023 Biodiversity & Conservation study identified 17 blocks of potential habitat in the eastern US that could likely support viable breeding populations of pumas. The largest block was the combined 59,462 square kilometres (about 23,000 square miles) of northern Wisconsin and the UP, with an additional 39,831 square kilometres (15,378 square miles) in the adjacent North Woods of Minnesota. Two smaller habitat blocks, separated by interstate highways, were identified in the northern section of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

There have been more than 75 verified sightings of pumas in Michigan since 2008. Image © Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Sure, there’s a reintroduced population of elk roaming the northeastern Lower Peninsula, several hundred moose are found on the UP, and a wide variety of smaller mammals – raccoons to porcupines to snowshoe hares – are found across the state. But there's no question the premier puma chow in Michigan is indeed the white-tailed deer, an estimated two million of which roam the state. That said, the largest proportion of whitetails are found in Michigan’s southern Lower Peninsula, host to much more extensive suburban sprawl and farmland: landcover that’s actually generally more conducive to deer than the vast closed forests of the UP.

Wildlife managers consider whitetails overpopulated in Michigan, with the declining popularity of hunting and low predation pressure in many areas among the challenges to addressing the situation. (Wolves, the primary wild deer predator in the Midwest, are presently restricted in the state to the UP and the Lake Superior island of Isle Royale.) And that situation is not ideal, not least because lots of deer in road-laced southern Michigan means more deer-vehicle collisions. The restoration of a breeding puma population could help provide a natural whitetail control, though the most deer-friendly part of the state – that southern Lower Peninsula – is also the least puma-friendly.

Incidentally, Eli Schaefer’s trail cam video from the UP isn’t the only recent capture of mountain lions on the leading edge of North American range recolonization doing what they do best in their old stomping grounds. In September of last year, trail cameras in Shannon County, Missouri – a state that, like Michigan, used to but no longer supports a breeding cougar population, but which has seen numerous sightings of apparent dispersing cats in recent decades – showed a puma attending to a freshly killed cow elk.

Header image: [ Greg ]/Flickr