A rural legend: The search for Pa. mountain lions

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A recent rumor of a cougar killed by a vehicle on Interstate 80 attracted some attention at Penn State.

Getting attention. After hearing of alleged sightings over the years – sketchy reports of rural folks listening to big cat screams in the night, inconclusive paw prints, photos and videos that never materialized and the occasional unexplained livestock killing – a cougar carcass was supposed to be delivered to university wildlife experts for necropsy.

The mystery of whether wild eastern cougars, also commonly known as mountain lions, pumas, or panthers, really survive in the Keystone State might finally unravel. This development promised to resolve a decades-old controversy.

Ironic situation. That the ultimate proof would come from Penn State seemed ironic – the university’s well-known mascot is a “Nittany” lion, and a mounted cougar killed in Susquehanna County in 1856 stands guard in the campus library.

Records show that more than 600 cougars were killed in Centre County alone during the 1800s.

But the reported road-kill apparently never happened. State wildlife authorities have no record of the incident and the promised cougar carcass never arrived.

“So the mystery goes on,” said Gary San Julian, professor of wildlife resources in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Still unknown. “Over the years, I’ve received a number of cougar reports, some pretty factual, such as a partly devoured calf left up in a tree, but nobody has ever provided clear proof. Still, you just never know…”

A hunter and an angler, San Julian, like most other outdoorsmen and nature lovers, wants to believe wild mountain lions survive in the woods of Pennsylvania.

But he doesn’t.

“Hunters tell me, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve seen them, but we love them, and we are not going to shoot them,’” he said.

No real evidence. “Thus a rural legend is perpetuated. If cougars are out there, why hasn’t one ever been killed on a highway or shot? There has never been any conclusive evidence.”

San Julian dutifully follows up on every cougar report he can. Recently he was given a plaster cast of what was suspected to be a cougar track from Wayne County, made after a “large cat-like creature” was seen locally.

But after consultations with biologists inside and outside the university, he determined it was an unusual bear track showing just four toes and no claws.

After carefully considering the shape of the paw, Penn State experts concluded that the print was not made by a cougar.

Some false alarms. He occasionally inspects “scat” suspected of being left by a mountain lion, and closely examines the animal excrement for food sources, hairs or other clues.

San Julian can even send scat to be tested for cougar DNA. The last promising scat turned out to be from a large coyote that had eaten a lot of meat.

DNA tests have offered conclusive proof of cougars in other eastern states.

Cougar sightings. The Eastern Cougar Foundation, a clearinghouse for cougar sightings, claims it has received proof that big cats do exist in Missouri, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois and Kentucky, and in Ontario and New Brunswick, Canada.

A reproducing population of endangered cougars lives in the Everglades, known as the “Florida panthers,” and the big cats are so numerous in a number of western states that hunting seasons are allowed.

The eastern cougar subspecies is slightly smaller than the western, but is similar in appearance and habits. Their coloration ranges from tan to black.

Summing it up. “I have been in this business long enough not to doubt what people say they have seen,” said San Julian, “but I think most sightings are escaped pets or animals released by people.”

Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser notes that his agency agrees with San Julian.

“We do not believe that there are any wild, native, breeding cougar populations in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that there is not a mountain lion in the wild,” he explains. “But we believe that the likely source is an illegally released animal.”

The game commission occasionally hears about cougar sightings too, but agency officials are skeptical about their origins.

“Recently there was an emu captured in Houtzdale, Clearfield County,” said Feaser. “Now nobody is saying there is a wild emu population in Pennsylvania.

“I think the mountain lion situation is like that. There may well be a mountain lion out there that has been illegally released.”

Just no proof. “We have lots of remote areas where people seldom go,” he said, “and our high deer population would offer them bountiful food. So it’s possible that cougars survive.

“But I want to see proof.”

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