The cougar exhibit at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire has been replaced with an equally popular yet rarely seen denizen of the Lakeshore. Staging and signage for the new black bear display is scheduled for completion in the weeks to come.

Here, park officials explain the reason for the change and where the cougar is headed next.

Even though there’s never been any concrete evidence (e.g. verified tracks, scat or pictures), it’s not uncommon to hear stories about cougars from Sleeping Bear visitors and locals. In the early-2000s, the sightings—some made by park’s own staff—reached an all-time high and helped spur concentrated effort to verify the existence of cougars within the Lakeshore.

Over the winter months of 2014-15, researchers conducted track surveys on more than 150 miles of roads and trails that crossed through all major habitat types in Sleeping Bear. Investigators also set dozens of remote, motion-sensing cameras throughout the park. Baited with roadkill deer, the cameras were set for a total of 863 nights. While images of everything from bobcat to red fox, coyote to domestic dog, were recorded, not a single image of a cougar was obtained.

Despite the lack of incontrovertible evidence, park officials decided to add a cougar display to the animal exhibits in the Philip A. Hart Visitors Center in 2008. The reason was explained in a 2008 news release:

“The mount is on temporary loan from Michigan State University Museum in East Lansing, Michigan,” said then Chief of Natural Resources, Steve Yancho. “We are pleased to not only be able to display one of Michigan’s historic predators, but perhaps also to provide an educational tool so that visitors have a basis upon which to evaluate these reported observations.”

The Cougar Goes Home

Last week, the Visitors Center’s cougar mount was finally returned to MSU, according to Matt Mohrman, volunteer coordinator in Lakeshore’s Interpretation Division. Park employees loaded the display in a van and drove it south to the Lansing where it will either be displayed or loaned out again to some other college, museum or government office.

“Since black bears are more prevalent and likely to be spotted by visitors, having one on display at the Visitors Center seemed more appropriate anyway,” adds Mohrman. “We’ve had virtually no cougar sightings reported in the past few years, but black bear sightings have definitely increased.”

Bear Aware

While some final touches on the construction to the exhibit is ongoing, park visitors this month can be some of the first to see the new black bear display. And who knows, if you are lucky you could actually see the real thing this fall before the Lakeshore’s healthy population of black bears retire to their winter dens.

“Staff and rangers have reported somewhere between twenty-five and thirty sightings of bears in the past few months,” says Morhman. “Most are toward the southern end of the park near the Platte River Campground and Trails End Road. But we’ve also had a few come in from the north end of the Lakeshore, up by Shalda Creek.”

While bear sightings are becoming more common, actual human/bear encounters are nil. Morhman attributes this to the efforts of park officials to make visitors and campers more “bear aware.” The installation of campground food lockers animal-proof dumpsters and garbage cans—along with warnings about the importance of cleaning up food and food liter around camp—has resulted in fewer incidents involving camp-raiding bears (and the infinitely more troublesome raccoons) in last two years.”

Spotting a bear in the Lakeshore is still a very rare experience. Statistics also say it is very safe. There have never been any serious incidents involving bears in the past. If you do happen to see a bear, biologists recommended that people watch from a distance and report the sighting to a ranger or park employee. If encountered at close range, slowly and watchfully back away from the bear. Never turn and run.