They go by names such as puma, panther, cougar, painter, ghost cat, catamount, and mountain lion. They are the largest wild cats in North America. Officially they have been long extinct in our neck of the woods, or have they?
On March 2, 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially announced that the Eastern Cougar (Puma concolor couguar) was extinct. A subspecies of the larger cougar family, the Eastern Cougar had been on the endangered species list since 1973. The last time a human saw an Eastern Cougar was in Maine in 1938. The Eastern Cougar’s habitat stretched from eastern Ontario and Michigan eastward to Maine and southward to Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri.
Cougar habitats once stretched from South America into Canada. Today, they roam freely in southern Florida and the American West. Mountain lions are known to live in reproducing populations in parts of western North and South Dakota, far western Nebraska, eastern Colorado and Kansas, far western Oklahoma, and the western third of Texas west to the Pacific coast. It is also believed that there are small reproducing populations in Michigan and the Ozarks. There have even been sightings in Illinois. In fact, there have been documented reports of cougars by trained observers in every state east of the Mississippi River.
In Missouri, just this past January 4th, a cougar in Reynolds County was trapped, studied and then released into the wild according to policy by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). There were 12 verified sightings of cougars in the state by the MDC from 1994 through 2010; and 14 more last year.
Cougars are known to travel great distances. A single male may require up to 175 square miles of territory for its home range. They prefer wild areas frequented by deer. One lion will consume about one deer per week. It will cover the remains of its prey and return to the kill to feed until the meat is gone. One male cougar fitted with a GPS was tracked all the way from South Dakota to Oklahoma before it got killed. Another mountain lion which was killed on a Connecticut highway in June of 2011, apparently walked 2,000 miles across the country from South Dakota, according to Connecticut environmental officials. The animal originated in the Black Hills region of South Dakota and was tracked by DNA from its hair and droppings as it passed through Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010.
Reports of cougar sightings have increased throughout the Northeast in recent years. Yet, officials say they don’t exist in the wild in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. So, what are all these cougars that people keep seeing? Maybe, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, or an exotic pet that was released or escaped.
Officially there are no known cougar populations in New Jersey. Yet, there have been many sightings of suspected cougars for years throughout the state. These sightings have taken place in Vernon Township, Marlboro, Denville, Sparta, Roxbury, Florham Park and Kingwood Township near Frenchtown. Most recently, a photo of a cougar attacking a buck was taken by a hunter’s wildlife motion camera in October in Clinton Township. The photo is being analyzed by authorities.
There haven’t been any cougars in the wild in Pennsylvania for over 100 years. The last known Pennsylvania native cougar was killed in Berks County in 1874. Yet, there have been frequent reported sightings of cougars throughout the state; however most cases have been disproven based on examination of tracks, photos or other physical evidence. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has no evidence of wild, breeding populations of large cats in Pennsylvania. There have been plenty of reported sightings by respectable people, one game commission officer told me, so it is possible they are out there. But there is no verified proof.
The last confirmed dead cougar in Pennsylvania was shot in 1967 by John Gallant in Crawford County. It was believed the cougar had been released or had escaped from a private wildlife establishment. Locally, mountain lions have been spotted in the forests of the Poconos and a few years ago; a large cat, which some thought was a mountain lion was seen several times on South Mountain and in Lower Saucon Township. No proof of that cat’s existence was ever found. In 2010, in Lycoming County a trail camera took a picture of an adult cougar. In 2008, a small cougar was sighted in the woods near a townhouse development in Downingtown. The next day it was sighted again by some nearby construction workers who were able to contain it with some temporary fencing; however, the cougar reacted so violently, the construction workers fearing for their safety killed the animal.
So for now, the PA Game Commission’s stance is that any sighting of a mountain lion is one that was “released,” or “escaped.” They were pets, introduced into the wild illegally. The Eastern Puma Research Network (EPRN) is not so sure. Too often, Pennsylvania deer hunters and others have spotted them. “Unfortunately, they seldom have a camera to record their unexpected sightings,” said John A. Lutz, executive director of the Eastern Puma Research Network. Hunters, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts can help prove their existence by gathering valuable evidence and contacting EPRN.
Good evidence could include a photo of the cat, a detailed description of the animal; such as length of body, length of tail, approximate weight, size, thickness, coloring, etc. Also recalling the specific geographic location, habitat conditions, and any other information would help. Other evidence could be in the form of scat, plaster casts of tracks and pictures of tracks. Yet, it is difficult to tell cougar tracks from those of the domestic dog. The tracks of these two species are frequently confused because dogs are one of the only animals that make tracks of the same approximate size and shape as those of the cougar/mountain lion. (Tracks 3 to 4 inches wide, four toes and no toenails eliminate most other animals.) More details can be found on EPRN’s web site: Also a 24-hour hot-line for reporting a sighting is available: 304-749-7778.
Cougars are usually aware of your presence long before you are aware of theirs. These solitary animals avoid people if they can. Some experts say that cougars are not extremely dangerous to humans. If you see a cougar, never approach one and DO NOT RUN! Keep eye contact. Don’t try to climb a tree because a cougar can leap more than 20 feet up into a tree from a standstill. Don’t crouch down. Stand up! Make yourself as big and visible as possible. They are not man-eaters. Their primary prey is deer, but they do eat porcupines, raccoons, birds, small mammals, foxes, mice, and grass.
Only 22 people have been killed in the past 110 years in all the US and Canada. There are no documented attacks on humans by a native Eastern Mountain Lion in 100 years.
For those who want to safely view a live cougar visit the Philadelphia Zoo or the Pocono Snake and Animal Farm on Route 209 in Marshalls Creek, Monroe County.