Known by many names -- from mountain lion, puma and panther to ghost cat, catamount and Nittany lion -- the eastern cougar reigned for millennia at the top of the food chain from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, from modern-day Canada to Tennessee. Revered by Indian tribes and decimated by bounty hunters, the ferocious carnivore remains the namesake of sports teams in Pittsburgh, State College and across the country.
Wednesday, as part of a court-ordered review of endangered and threatened species, federal researchers proposed that the eastern cougar finally be declared extinct. The species was about 12,000 years old.
But nobody's sending flowers. The proposal to remove the animal from the federal endangered list is merely academic. Many biologists, including those from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, agree that no wild, breeding populations of panthers have existed in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states for 100 years or more. Persistent reports of eastern cougar sightings throughout the Appalachian region have proven to be misidentifications, hoaxes or exotic pets that escaped captivity or were illegally set free.
In fact, new research, independent from the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review, proposes that all North American subspecies of Puma concolor are genetically identical. If that proves to be accurate, there never was a distinctly different "eastern cougar."
"Based on our three years of research, there has been no confirmed sighting of an eastern cougar, or forensic evidence of one, in a very long time," said Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and leader of the team that will propose the agency remove the animal from the endangered list.
The Canadian Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct in 1998, and U.S. states including Pennsylvania report no confirmed sightings. Nevertheless, the federal Endangered Species Act mandates that the Fish and Wildlife Service review the status of all endangered and threatened species every five years.
With some 1,500 animals on those lists, the agency concentrated its efforts on species such as wolves and bald eagles, which could be removed from the list when their populations grew. They intentionally skipped over species such as eastern cougars, whose possible existence is considered to be a technicality at best.
"We were sued, lost the lawsuit and recently did the full review," said Mr. McCollough, who grew up in the Butler area and was a Nittany Lions fan when he attended Penn State. "During the process, we contacted state wildlife agencies about possible cougar sightings. As I recall, we got a substantial letter from the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 2007 saying there are absolutely no cougars in Pennsylvania, and they don't want them reintroduced."
The Game Commission researches cougar sightings each year. Spokesman Jerry Feaser said they've found no evidence of reproducing cougar populations, and prosecuted a Harrisburg man in 2002 for illegally possessing a cougar.
"Most of the time, people who think they see mountain lions are seeing cocker spaniels, house cats or exotic pets that have escaped," he said. "The only instances of mountain lion or mountain lion-type animals found in the wild originate from a captive animal situation."
Archaeological evidence suggests the big cats originated in South America and moved north when the continent linked with North America. Northern cougars succumbed to mass extinctions that killed off many species during the Pleistocene Epoch -- which stretched from about 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. They later rebounded, extending their range throughout the Western Hemisphere. Cougars continue to thrive in the American West and Midwest, and may be migrating eastward.
A remnant population, the Florida panther, continues to live in that state's isolated swamps and dense woodlands, and may have been separated from other North American cats long enough to be considered a distinct subspecies. Modern male adult cougars average 140 pounds and 8 feet in length, including the long, distinctive tail. Females are smaller.
Rumors have long existed that breeding populations of mountain lions live secret lives high in the Appalachians. Ken Miller, a Massachusetts resident and board member of The Cougar Network, said he cofounded the website in 2002 believing the stories might be true.
"With all those reports around, we initially thought there were some in the East and did forensic tests to determine if that was true," he said. "What we found was sighting reports are notoriously unreliable, and when one is found it's always some kind of captive exotic feline -- usually from South America --that escaped or was released. And in the last couple of years, photos shipped around the Internet are all hoaxes, using animals from the West."
Although The Cougar Network receives sighting reports "almost every day," Miller said he's convinced the animal no longer exists.
"When you think about it, it makes sense," he said. "In the late 1800s, the forests were clear cut, and the deer and elk, which were the major food source for cougars, were mostly wiped out. With their food gone, habitat gone and pursued by hunters, the cougars probably went extinct in the East a long time ago."
Correction/Clarification: (Published March 4, 2011) The Pennsylvania Game Commission prosecuted a Harrisburg man in 2002 for illegally possessing a cougar. A story Thursday incorrectly said the agency had prosecuted people involved in cougar-related hoaxes.
John Hayes: email@example.com or 412-263-1991. First Published March 3, 2011 5:00 AM