Lion Country?

It seems as if everywhere I go, I hear stories about mountain lions. Not just in Pennsylvania, but Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and West Virginia. New England has also produced a rash of plausible sightings. What is happening? Has the eastern mountain lion or cougar (Puma concolor couguar), as biologists prefer to call it, returned from the never-never land of extinction, was it never extinct in the first place, or is something else going on?

My interest in this was first piqued back in 1994 when I learned that an Eastern Cougar Conference had been held at Clarion University. How could they hold a scientific conference about an extinct animal? When I obtained a copy of the Proceedings of the Eastern Cougar Conference, edited by Jay W. Tischendorf and Steven J. Ropski, my question was answered. J. Richard Greenwell in his paper “The Place of the Eastern Puma in the Natural History of Larger Felids,” explained it this way. “If the eastern puma really has gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, we should ponder over why and how it happened. If it is still with us, we should ponder over how it possibly could have survived.”

The eastern cougar or puma or panther or mountain lion (just a small sampling of the cougar’s 40 English names) once lived from New Brunswick, Canada, south to the Carolinas and west to Illinois. Its alleged extinction occurred around the beginning of the twentieth century because of killing by humans and the almost complete eradication of white-tailed deer, its principal prey.

Here in Pennsylvania, where the eastern cougar was first called Cougar de Pensilvania by the French naturalist Count Buffon in 1776, the last official wild cougar was shot in 1891. But Helen J. McGinnis’s conference paper, “Reports of Pumas in Pennsylvania, 1890-1981” was of special interest to me. She collected all reports of sightings and kills of cougars in Pennsylvania and after extensive research, including interviews with witnesses, decided that 325 of them were plausible. She concluded that “Pennsylvania may have a small breeding population of pumas, descended from survivors of the 19th century population, occasional escapes and releases of captives, and perhaps from immigration from Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.”

McGinnis’s study ended in 1982. Since then, the number and quality of sightings have increased. By 1993 the Eastern Puma Research Network in Baltimore, Maryland was reporting that the most sightings of cougars, by far, had come from Pennsylvania and that many included the presence of cubs. On the other hand, many professionals distrust the Network’s reports because they are often based on hearsay without the vigorous follow-up scientists demand.

The Game Commission, too, is firmly convinced that whatever sightings there are consist of accidental or intentional releases of pets. Jerry Hassinger, Endangered Species Coordinator for the Commission, in an e-mail to me, says, “Pennsylvania has some of the highest road densities in the nation, yet there are no road kills. We have some of the highest deer hunter densities in the world, yet no cougars are reported being shot. Currently I have no evidence of an established cougar population. There could be releases in Pennsylvania or in surrounding states. For whatever reason, people keep cougars in captivity both legally and illegally.”

Hassinger’s comments make eminent sense, yet the question of cougars in the wild continued to interest me, especially after my husband Bruce and I attended a conference in West Virginia. It was focused on acid rain in Central Appalachian forests, but it also included a seminar on eastern cougars by one of my favorite writers–Chris Bolgiano. She was the author of a book I had recently read and liked called Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, and I remembered that her final chapter had concerned the eastern cougar.

I was prepared to be skeptical. Instead, I was surprised. A young man named Todd Lester from West Virginia talked knowledgeably about tracks, scats, and sightings, and he told us he was dedicating his life to following up every plausible report in the eastern United States with the help of Bolgiano and other members of the recently formed Eastern Cougar Research Center, now renamed the Eastern Cougar Foundation (ECF). His position and Bolgiano’s is that whether or not these animals are remnants of the wild eastern cougar population or releases doesn’t matter. If they are making it in the wild on their own, they should be protected.

To that end, Bolgiano wrote a pamphlet entitled “Living With Cougars in the Appalachian Mountains” in which she summarizes a few credible sightings, discusses the cougar’s biology and behavior, explains how humans should act if they see a cougar, and includes descriptions of cougar evidence such as tracks, sounds, and scrapes, as well as what to look for if you do spot one and where to report it. They have also issued wanted posters with a drawing of a cougar and its tracks and telephone numbers you can call if you’ve seen one.

But other than an enthusiastic nature writer and a convinced young man, who comprises the board of directors of the Eastern Cougar Foundation? To my surprise, I recognized nearly all the names as prominent in their fields.

Robert Downing is the now retired United States Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who carried out the only official field study of the eastern cougars in the 1980s. For three years he and his wife searched for cougar tracks in the snow, maintained scent stations attractive to cougars in remote areas, and followed many promising leads in the southern Appalachians, but they found no concrete evidence of an eastern cougar population. According to Bolgiano in her book, Downing “ranked the elusiveness of cougars high on his list of searching problems.”

Dr. David S. Maehr was the director of field research for the Florida Panther Project for nine years and is now a conservation biologist at the University of Kentucky. I recognized his name from his portrayal both in Bolgiano’s book and in Chuck Fergus’s Swamp Screamer:At Large with the Florida Panther. In both books Maehr struck me as driven, sincere, and committed to the protection of the Florida panther. Having radiotagged and followed them through the Big Cypress Preserve for nine years, I had no doubt that he knew a panther, or panther sign, when he saw it.

Other members include Mark Jenkins of West Virginia who runs the Cooper’s Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary for captive cougars that have been abused or neglected, Dr. Donald W. Linzey, in the biology department of Wytheville Community College in Virginia, who has been documenting cougars in Virgina since 1978 and is the author of Mammals of Virginia, and Susan Morse of Vermont, a professional forester who has worked with and tracked mountain lions in the western United States.

There are two Pennsylvanians on the board–Dr. Jay Tischendorf, a veterinarian who once worked on the Hornocker Institute’s Yellowstone Cougar Study and who organized the Eastern Cougar Conference, and Thomas Linzey, the son of Donald, who lives in Shippensburg where he practices environmental law.

Finally, Dr. Melanie Culver of Virginia, whose recent Ph.D dissertation reported on her four-year analysis of DNA from the 32 subspecies of cougars. Completed under Dr. Stephen O’Brien of the University of Maryland, an internationally known feline geneticist at the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute, Culver concluded that there are only six subspecies of cougars in this hemisphere. All temperate North American cougars north of Nicaragua are a single subspecies that should be called Puma concolor couguar, the present name of the eastern cougar subspecies. She is saying, in essence, that the eastern cougar never went extinct because it is the same subspecies of those still thriving in the western United States, Mexico, and Central America, as well as the beleaguered Florida panther.

Her conclusion suits me because it means that the cougar screaming I heard while camped in a remote park in British Columbia was made by the same subspecies that once lived in Pennsylvania. But no doubt Culver’s taxonomic conclusion will cause a crisis in the world of mammalogists and conservationists.

Impressed by the quality of the board of the ECF, I also approve of their goals which are: “To scientifically document the existence of wild, reproducing cougars in the eastern United States, to assure official protection for all such cougars, and to build acceptance of wild cougars in the rural east through educational outreach.” Furthermore, they emphasize that they are not interested in reintroducing cougars to the eastern United States.

So, have they delivered the goods yet? Chris Bolgiano says she has at least ten incidents of confirmed field evidence such as scat, a cougar body, tracks, or video and is waiting for written documentation on two more by an ECF board member who confirmed some tracks and a video in North Carolina. By the time you read this column, she will have presented her evidence at the Sixth Mountain Lion Conference in San Antonio in December 2000. Her confirmations include scat in Ontario and New Brunswick, Canada, Vermont and Massachusetts, home videos of one in western Maryland, and tracks in West Virginia. Another cougar was treed and killed by raccoon hunters in Missouri in 1994 and still another was hit by a train in southern Illinois in July 2000.

In Pennsylvania Gene Odato, Chief of the Rural and Community Forestry Section for Pennsylvania’s DCNR, has been coordinating efforts to track down every suspected cougar sighting or evidence and reporting them to the ECF which does follow-up work. So far, they have not positively documented any wild cougars in Pennsylvania, although the latest sighting, in the Seven Mountains of central Pennsylvania, sounds plausible.

Then, there is the Delaware cougar or cougars that have been roaming the White Clay Creek Valley and its environs for several years, using culvert pipes to cross busy highways in this heavily-populated area. According to my Delaware friend, Dorothy Miller, sightings began in the winter of 1995-96. Videos of a cougar in a backyard were shown on Philadelphia area television many times and in local newspapers. It was tracked, although never seen or photographed, throughout the winter as it left obvious cougar-killed deer carcasses in its wake. Other sightings in the area continued off and on until 1998 when a biologist spotted it on the Delaware side of the White Clay Creek Preserve which Pennsylvania shares with Delaware. In 2000 the reports in New Castle County, Delaware, mounted to five by late June. It seemed only a matter of time until that cougar crossed into Pennsylvania.

And on August 7 it did. According to Kevin Housel, an employee of the United States Geological Service who was doing geological survey work in the Preserve, “I came up over the rise and saw her five seconds tops. She went down on her haunches when she saw the truck. Then she tore off. I saw a three foot tail at the end of her body and she looked in good health.” He said he thought she was a three-year-old female. When I asked how he could be so certain, he replied that he had studied two captive cougars at Zoo America in Hershey Park for a school project. Housel knew enough to look for tracks but couldn’t find any because the land was dry.

Both Odato and Bolgiano think that the Delaware cougar or cougars (if Housel’s cougar is only three years old, it couldn’t be the one of 1995-96) are probably released captives. But there is no doubt that they and other cougars spotted in the east are able to make a living, even in a suburban area, because of our high deer population.

Jamie Clark, head of the USFWS, in answer to a letter from the ECF recently wrote, “We acknowledge that occasional sightings of cougars have been reported and that some animals have been recovered, but none of these animals has shown any evidence of belonging to a remnant, wild, breeding population of eastern cougar. Therefore, the Service’s position remains that the eastern cougar is extirpated.” Not if Melanie Culver’s dissertation conclusions are accepted by mammalogists. That will open a whole new can of worms, including the status of the federally-endangered Florida panther.

For the time being, though, my mind is open. I’ll continue to monitor the work of the ECF. And to keep hoping that the “ghost cat” called “Lord of the Forest” by the Cherokee, “Greatest of Wild Hunters” by the Cree, and “Cat of God” by the Chickasaw, and whose face was carved on many stone and clay-fired pipes by our Eastern Woodland Indians, is still out there. After all, I live in Lion Country!

To receive a copy of Bolgiano’s brochure, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Eastern Cougar Foundation, P.O. Box 74, North Springs, West Virginia 24869. You can also subscribe to their newsletter at the same address for $10.00 or read about their work on the web at http://www.easterncougar.org.