Mountain lions coming home
Just prior to the start of Pennsylvania's two-week firearms deer season, the volunteers at the Eastern Puma Research Network put out a call to hunters. They wanted to hear from anyone who saw a mountain lion or signs of one, like tracks or scats.
Lion sightings they got. Hard evidence that wild, free-ranging mountain lions are living in the state they did not.
"It's so hard to pin anything down," said John Lutz, the West Virginia man who heads the network, a non-scientific affiliation of mountain lion seekers across the eastern United States. "A cougar or puma is like a UFO with four feet."
That doesn't stop some from believing mountain lions do exist in the East. Lutz and several other volunteers are planning to travel to Bedford County within a few days of the next snowfall, in fact, to look for cougar sign because several sightings have been reported there in recent months.
Certainly, mountain lions -- also known as panthers, pumas and cougars -- did inhabit Pennsylvania and other eastern states at one time. As recently as the mid-19th century, they were the most widespread mammal on the continent, ranging from southern Canada to South America and from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
Persecuted by people, left with little prey once deer herds were decimated by humans, and robbed of habitat, they eventually disappeared from the East. The last wild cougar killed in Pennsylvania was shot in Berks County in 1874.
For decades since, some have wondered whether mountain lions haven't made their way back. The answer, according to most scientists, is that they have not.
"We've probably looked into this as closely as anyone has," said Mark Dowling of Connecticut, a board member of the Cougar Network, a group that's using scientific study in an attempt to document just where cougars live and how they might be expanding their range. "I think what we would say is that there is no credible evidence right now of a mountain lion population in Pennsylvania."
That doesn't mean Pennsylvania won't have cougars again someday, however. Many scientists believe they will recolonize the East in time.
In 2002, Paul Beier, a cougar researcher from Northern Arizona University, said in a New York Times article that "they will eventually get to new Jersey, or at least close."
In a 2003 article in Outside Magazine, Maurice Hornocker, a University of Idaho biologist who is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on the cats, said "lions will hit the Mississippi in the next decade." He predicted that they will then expand even further eastward, since "the East and Midwest is beautiful cat country, full of deer and cover."
There's evidence those predictions are coming true. Already, mountain lions have started showing up in places where they haven't been for decades. Several mountain lions believed to be wild have shown up east of the Mississippi River in Illinois in the last four years.
Clay Nielsen, director of scientific research for the Cougar Network and a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, is working to document the amount of potential cougar habitat in the Midwest. Those areas already seem to be getting the runover from expanding mountain lions populations in the West. It's likely that as that habitat fills up, cougars will move even further eastward, he said.
"Given the number of cougar confirmations documented by the Cougar Network during the past two years, it is clearly time for the wildlife community to prepare for cougars," he wrote in the group's most recent newsletter.
Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective, Dowling said. He personally would like to see mountain lions in the East again, but he realizes not everyone feels the same way.
"I think that would be pretty neat. I think cougars would be in heaven here because the habitat needs are actually very good," Dowling said.
"The real limiting factor is people, the social carrying capacity of the landscape, and whether they will allow mountain lions to re-establish themselves."
To learn moreTo learn more about mountain lions and the work of documenting their expansion, check out these resources: