Photo courtesy of Dan Sadler
Four toes, no claw marks, prints a little smaller than a man's hand.
Dan Sadler, an account executive for the Post-Gazette, came upon the tracks in the snow while hiking last week in Brady's Run Park, near Beaver Falls in Beaver County. His first thought hit him like a jolt of adrenaline: cougar.
Sadler, however, had calmer second thoughts. The tracks weren't fresh. Melting had swelled the size and diminished details of the footprints -- maybe they were bear. And anyway, haven't cougars been extinct in these parts for over 100 years? He quickly amended his first impression to "maybe cougar."
The tracks were never confirmed by a specialist, but neither the Pennsylvania Game Commission nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are willing to discount the possibility that Sadler may have had a close encounter with a cougar.
"A week before last, a call came in about somebody seeing a big cat in northern Allegheny County," Game Commission spokesman Mel Schake said. "A couple of years ago, one was seen fairly regularly in Beaver County. Our [investigating] officer was fairly confident -- it had been seen by police officers. When I was in Indiana County for 15 years, just about every year I got calls from people who said they saw one."
More than1,000 sightings of big cats with long tails have been reported in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other eastern states.
"I never say never when it comes to these kinds of things," Schake said. "There are enough of these calls coming in from around the state that there's something out there. There's now an effort to determine do we or don't we have any of these."
That effort, announced two weeks ago, is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review of scientific and commercial information to determine the status of Puma concolor couguar, the eastern cougar.
Once the alpha predator from Maine to South Carolina to Michigan, the mountain lion was one of the first casualties of European settlement. Its principle prey -- woodland bison, eastern elk and white-tailed deer -- were hunted to extinction or, in the case of deer, near extinction. By the end of the 1800s, prejudices about big, scary wild cats put a theoretical end to the Pennsylvania eastern cougar. Western cougars survive in the Rocky Mountains, and about 100 black panthers, a subspecies, are hanging on in Florida.
Sightings and material evidence continue to be reported throughout central and eastern United States. Diana Weaver of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said genetic testing of some animal remains has been conclusive: cougar.
Testing of well-preserved material samples includes the following:
In 2000, cougars were found in Illinois.
In 1993, an emaciated cougar of South American origin was discovered in Saratoga, N.Y.
In 1992, a healthy cougar of South American origin was shot in Quebec, and a cougar kitten of South American origin was found in Kentucky.
"For the cougars that have been tested, DNA comes from both North American and South American cougars," Weaver said. "We are unable at this point to definitively clarify whether the North American cougars are western or eastern in origin."
Debate continues over whether western cougars are migrating east, but nobody's claiming South American cougars are coming north.
"When somebody does see this kind of thing, it probably got away from somebody," Schake said. "They have them as pets and sometimes they get away."
Ownership of exotic species, such as a cougar, requires multiple permits from the Game Commission, Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Plus, many municipalities have regulations.
"Once you have these things in your possession, they're required to be caged at all times," Schake said. "There are specific housing requirements for big cats. If they ever escape, they'd have to notify the Game Commission. But most of these things, I believe, are unlawfully possessed to begin with. If someone has one, they're not willing to put themselves in legal jeopardy with the Game Commission or police by admitting, 'Hey, my mountain lion got away.'"
"The cute and cuddly become more difficult when they get older," Weaver said. "Sometimes they escape, but sometimes people can't handle them and just let them go," in violation of state and perhaps local laws.
Schake said to his knowledge, there have been no recent reports of escaped cougars in western Pennsylvania.
The new Fish and Wildlife cougar survey is the first since 1982. One of its goals is to evaluate the 15 designated subspecies in the United States to determine if they are, in fact, a single genetic species. Weaver said they'd also like to find out if feral cougars are reproducing in the wild, and conclude once and for all if the eastern cougar is extinct. Although none have been confirmed in decades, the eastern cougar remains classified as "endangered."
"Well, endangered but presumed extinct," Weaver said. "But you never know. The Black-footed ferret was listed as presumed extinct, but darned if we didn't find it."
Anyone wishing to contribute to the cougar study should e-mail EasternCougar@fws.gov, or send information to Eastern Cougar, Northeast Regional Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 300 Westgate Center Dr., Hadley, MA., 01035. The deadline is March 30.
If there is a cougar making tracks in the Beaver County snow, Schake said it's probably an escaped or released pet living off road kills. He said there has been no recent increase in reports of missing dogs or cats in the area.
"It would have a natural predatory response," he said, "but if it's pen raised chances are it would be not very good at hunting and would eat any little thing it could find. It would probably be a scavenger."
The danger to humans, he said, is minimal.
"A pen raised animal may not be as threatening as a wild version of the same thing, but they're still unpredictable animals," he said. "If there are [cougars] out there roaming around, they do their very best to avoid people."
For the record, and in general, try not to run from any predator. You can't out run it, and running triggers the predatory response. Make yourself look as big as possible, make noise, don't make direct eye contact, back away and get out of there.
John Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1991.