A 24-year-old deer hunter who lives on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula captured some incredible trail camera footage there in late December. The video clips that Eli Schaefer shared with Outdoor Life (below) show a mountain lion with its jaws locked around a struggling whitetail deer’s neck, and then dragging the deer off into the woods. Wildlife experts with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources believe it’s the first time that anyone in the state has captured video footage of a cougar in the act of killing a deer. But Schaefer says he almost deleted the clips before he saw them on Jan. 6.
Deer season had closed four days prior, so Schaefer was pulling all his trail cameras out of the Keweenaw Peninsula Forest where he hunts. The large swath of public land is located near Toivola. He explains that this particular trail camera was setup along a deer trail roughly 100 yards from his stand.
“I got home that day to put all my gear away, and at first, I was just gonna delete the cards,” Schaefer says. “But I decided to shoot through them just to see if any [good bucks] survived the season.”
That’s when he noticed a still photograph of a big cat. Clicking on the preview, he realized it was actually a series of two videos that showed the cougar in action.
“So, I played it, and I was like, oh my God,” he adds. “I got chills instantly, just thinking about how easily I could have been standing there, and that thing could’ve jumped on me.”
Schaefer was even more excited because he believes the cougar in the video is the same cat that walked past another one of his trail cams on Oct. 9. He says that camera was set near a bait site roughly a mile from the camera that captured the videos. Denise Peterson, who used to live in Michigan and has since founded Utah Mountain Lion Conservation, agrees. She reached out to Schaefer to congratulate him on what she called the “dream shot” and said that, judging from the cat’s head size, she’s confident the big cat is a male.
This would also support the DNR’s predominant theories regarding mountain lions in the state. So far, wildlife biologists have not found proof of a breeding population there and they’ve only been able to confirm sightings of male cougars, according to MLive.com. They think these younger males are traveling into the state from places like the Dakotas as they’re pushed out of these territories by older toms.
Although mountain lions are native to Michigan, they were extirpated in the early 1900s and are currently listed as endangered in the state. The DNR has been tracking cougar sightings in recent years, however, with a current tally of 106 confirmed sightings since 2008.
Schaefer says he’d reached out to the Michigan DNR in October to share his trail cam photo, but that he hadn’t heard back until earlier this week, when DNR biologist Brian Roell messaged him about the video clips. Roell plans to return to the woods with Schaefer Tuesday to verify the sightings and look for more cougar sign.
The wildlife biologist also told MLive.com that it’s the first time he’s ever seen footage like this from Michigan. He called the chances of this sort of capture “really remote.”
“I just thought it was really neat because biologically, we know they are killing deer,” Roell said. “There’s no new insight or anything like that.”
It’s certainly not news to Schaefer, either. The hunter tells Outdoor Life that in November 2021, he was deer hunting in the same area when he came across a big cat’s paw print in the snow near a blood trail. Thinking it was a large bobcat, he followed the tracks roughly two miles and came upon a deer carcass that was already buried. He explains that this cache would have been right between where the October photo and the December videos were captured.
“So, seeing that video and thinking back on what I’d seen back then, it had to have been the exact same thing: A big cat jumping on a deer and pinning it there, and then eventually dragging it back to bury,” Shaeffer says. “I can’t be sure if it was a big bobcat or a cougar or what. All I have is that big paw print and the story to go with it.”