Is the big cat back?
That's what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to find out as it undertakes a review of scientific and anecdotal information about the eastern cougar and whether it is once again roaming the woods and ridges of Pennsylvania and 20 other Eastern states.
The large, shy cat, also known as a mountain lion, panther or puma, is believed to be extinct throughout its historical range from Maine to South Carolina and westward to Michigan and Tennessee, except to the thousands of people who say they have caught a glimpse of one.
"An important part of the service's review will be to compile the best available scientific evidence and objectively assess whether the eastern cougar is truly extinct," said Mark McCollough, a service endangered species biologist, who will work on the review.
There have been more than 1,400 sightings in Pennsylvania, more than in any other Eastern state, according to the Eastern Puma Research Network in Maysville, W.Va., which investigates mountain lion reports east of the Rocky Mountains, where populations are known to exist.
But the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which announced last fall it would start a formal system for tracking mountain lion reports, maintains the last known Pennsylvania native mountain lion was killed in Berks County in 1874, and says it has been unable to confirm any of the reported sightings as wild natives.
"We do not believe, nor do we have any evidence, there are wild, breeding mountain lions in Pennsylvania," said Jerry Feaser, a game commission spokesman. "We've never been able to verify any of the sightings, even when called in a timely manner, through analysis of tracks. Mostly, they turn out to be bobcats or feral cats."
Occasionally the sightings involve animals that have escaped or been illegally released, or are kept as pets. There might be thousands of captive cougars in the eastern United States, according to the game commission.
The eastern cougar was put on the federal endangered species list in 1973, and the Wildlife Service hasn't done a review since publishing a recovery plan in 1982, even though one is required every five years. But limited resources and higher priorities have delayed the review until now.
The Fish and Wildlife Service announced the review in the Federal Register on Jan. 29, and has requested information on cougar status, protection, threats, captivity laws and appropriate habitat from state fish and wildlife agencies in states and Canadian provinces where the cats once lived and could again.
Because of their abundant forests, rugged ridge terrain and healthy population of deer, a favorite food, the Puma Research Network considers mountainous sections of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, western Maryland and Virginia likely sites for mountain lions to re-establish themselves.
Game commission Executive Director Carl Roe emphasized that the review was not part of any process to reintroduce mountain lions, and the game commission is opposed to reintroduction.
"Such a reintroduction would not be feasible in the state, and would not be something acceptable to most citizens, given that there are few areas of the commonwealth without established communities," Mr. Roe said. "Also, such introductions, given the human population density, would not be in the best interest of the animals."
The USFWS has requested that anyone wishing to submit information regarding the eastern cougar may do so by writing to: Eastern Cougar, Northeast Regional Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 300 Westgate Center Drive, Hadley, MA 01035. Comments also may be submitted via e-mail to EasternCougar@fws.gov.
Information must be received for the state review by the USFWS by March 30, although the service will continue to accept information about eastern cougars at any time.
Don Hopey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.