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Cameras set to capture Mich. cougar images

TRAVERSE CITY — Are cougars on the prowl around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore? Scientists hope a few strategically placed cameras will help them find out.

Reports of cougar sightings have trickled into the park headquarters in Leelanau County for at least two decades, said Steve Yancho, chief of natural resources. "We're fairly confident that we've got something out there," he said Monday.

But it's unclear how many big cats there are, or whether they represent a resident, breeding population, he said. Wildlife biologists are debating similar questions about cougar sightings elsewhere in Michigan.

Scientists mounted motion-detecting, still field cameras in trees a couple of months ago at five locations around Sleeping Bear Dunes, which extends 35 miles along the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Carcasses of road-killed deer were placed at each site. No cougars have taken the bait thus far, and Yancho acknowledges prospects aren't great that any will come within camera range.

"It's definitely a long shot to see if we can capture an image that way, but it's part of a multi-pronged approach we are taking," he said.

Cougars range far and wide within home territories that can total 400 square miles, said Pat Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the nonprofit Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.

"They will spend sometimes four days and more at one deer carcass after making a kill," Rusz said. "But where they'll be at any given point in time is anybody's guess."

The conservancy has been trying to document the existence of cougars in Michigan since the late 1990s.