‘ALWAYS A CHANCE’: Feds declare eastern cougar extinct in Pennsylvania

Feds declare eastern cougar extinct in Pennsylvania

This Feb. 3, 2014 remote camera photo provided by the National Park Service shows mountain lion P-23 approaching a kill in the Santa Monica Mountains. The Southern California mountain lion was part of a study by federal biologists has been found dead. The National Park Service says remains of the 5½-year-old female lion known as P-23 were recovered this week near Malibu Canyon Road and she appeared to have been struck by a vehicle. (National Park Service via AP)

Despite yearly reports of cougar sightings in Pennsylvania, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it is removing the mountain lion subspecies native to the region from its list of threatened and endangered animals because of a long known technicality — it’s extinct.

Across the eastern cougar’s old range, data indicates the apex predator likely disappeared forever at least 70 years ago.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, most eastern cougars disappeared in the 1800s. Many were killed out of fear for human and livestock safety or were victims of massive deforestation and overharvesting of the animal’s primary prey, white-tailed deer.

Does that mean cougar sightings in the state are inaccurate? Experts in the field say probably, but not always.

Widely distributed

The eastern cougar is — or was — one of many subspecies of the larger cougar group.

Also known as ghost cats, catamounts, pumas, panthers and mountain lions, cougars range from northern Canada to the tip of South America, said David Broussard, assistant professor of biology at Lycoming College.

Once the most widely distributed land mammals in the Western Hemisphere, subspecies have been eliminated from about two-thirds of their original range, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The western cougar has nearly adapted to co-habitat with humans in a vein of the western U.S. from West Texas up through parts of Wyoming and Colorado, Broussard said.

“The eastern cougar subspecies looked a little different than western cougars,” Broussard said. “They are smaller in body size and a little more squat.”

Eastern cougars historically ranged from Michigan, southern Ontario, eastern Canada and Maine south to South Carolina and west across Tennessee.

At one time, they lived in every eastern state in a variety of habitats including coastal marshes, mountains and forests, according to the wildlife service.

“The species of cougar as a whole are still a widely distributed species,” Broussard said. “They can thrive in many different habitats from tropical or mountain forests, above the treeline to prairies.”

Expanding eastward

The state Game Commission gets reports of cougar sightings throughout the year — even in Lycoming County.

“The likelihood of seeing one is pretty unlikely,” said Tony Ross, the commission’s northcentral regional biologist. “But there always could be a chance.”

Both Ross and Broussard agreed there are two likely explanations for the very unlikely chance of seeing an actual mountain lion in Pennsylvania.

“Any sighting is most likely an escaped pet or an individual raised in captivity. It also could be a western cougar that made its way over,” Broussard said.

The commission has nearly 1,000 people legally holding permits to keep mountain lions in zoos, as pets or in nature preserves, Ross said.

“And who knows how many people didn’t have a legal permit, and the possibility of them getting loose is there,” he said.

But Ross added that the commission doesn’t give out those permits carelessly. Most of them go to zoos and menageries.

As for the other possibility, wild cougar populations in the West have been expanding their range eastward in the last two decades, according to the wildlife service. Western mountain lion adults have very expansive home ranges.

“They have huge pieces of territory,” Broussard said. “So when an adolescent leaves its mother, they have to go out on their own to find a range. That could sometimes be wide and far.”

It isn’t common for a western cougar to look for land this far away from its home, but experts say it does happen.

“When the young ones are dispersing, they sometimes have to go really far out to avoid competition,” Broussard said. “And just like other animals, the young ones just go, sometimes not knowing when they’re going to stop.”

Could be bobcats

Many alleged cougar sightings in Pennsylvania are quick, at a distance, in low visibility or any other situation where there could be room for doubt. And experts say that predator cat running across a foggy road or walking on a distant hill usually turns out to be a bobcat.

“I’ve done it, too,” Ross said. “You’re in the woods hunting. It’s cold … the wind is blowing and you see something. But when you look closer it’s not always necessarily what you think it is.”

Bobcats, also known as the bay lynx, wildcat or red lynx, are the state’s only feline predators, according to the commission.

Typically weighing between 15 to 20 pounds, the animal is definitively much smaller than any cougar. But Ross said there are some big ones roaming the woods.

“Most people don’t realize some bobcats can be quite large,” Ross said, “in between 35 and 40 pounds.”

But there are some clear differences between bobcats and cougars if size is skewed by a larger-than-average bobcat or imperfect sightings.

Bobcats are more gray in color, often have spots and a small tail, Broussard said. Cougars are more brown with very long tails.

Another reason for the misidentification is that it’s sometimes assumed that it can’t be a bobcat because it doesn’t have spots.

“Not all bobcats have spots,” Ross said. “A lot of the timel they are merely underneath the fur so you can look at them and they could have similar coloration as a mountain lion.”

Another blatant difference is a bobcat’s facial markings. A bobcat has a type of dark mask coloration while cougars don’t.

‘There’s always

a chance’

Regardless of the limited chance of seeing a cougar in Pennsylvania, the commission never shrugs off a sighting.

“Sometimes people say we won’t listen to reports of sightings,” Ross said. “We do our best to try and identify accurately rather than jump to conclusions. But I can’t sit here and say there aren’t mountain lions here because there could be, in some situations.”

When someone calls about seeing what they think is a cougar, the commission takes a report, files information and investigates.

“We’re not here to say to someone, ‘No, you didn’t,’ “ Ross said, “because maybe they did. There’s always a chance.”