HARRISBURG, Pa. (WTAJ) — Mountain lions, commonly known as cougars or pumas, are a large cat species mostly native to the Western United States. However, some Pennsylvanians have claimed to see mountain lions in the wild leading many to believe the large cat is in the state.
A species of mountain lion known as the eastern cougar once inhabited Pennsylvania centuries ago but was eventually hunted to extinction. As sightings and stories pop up, some are led to speculate that mountain lions may be making their way back to the state.
WTAJ spoke to Pennsylvania Game Commission Furbearer Biologist Thomas Keller about the possibility of mountain lions being in the Keystone State and whether or not the species is making a return in one way or another.
Keller’s position at the game commission involves helping manage the 16 furbearer species that are present in Pennsylvania which include raccoons, opossums, foxes, coyotes, bobcats and more.
Our full interview with Thomas Keller can be watched in the video player below:
Are mountain lions in Pennsylvania?
When asked if mountain lions are in Pennsylvania, Keller explained a breeding population of the large cat is not present in the state. However, he explained that there could be other possibilities for mountain lions to be found in Pennsylvania.
“To be able to say ‘Do we have mountain lions in Pennsylvania?’ The answer to that can be some of these other facets or things like ‘Do we have folks that have mountain lions in captivity’ which we certainly do in Pennsylvania. ‘Do we have folks that had mountain lions in captivity and released them into the wild’ and that may be where you get some sightings and that has occurred in the past,” Keller said.
The biologist also explained that it is a real possibility that a transient wild mountain lion could make its way into Pennsylvania.
“We did see that in 2011. Not in Pennsylvania but we saw that in Connecticut with a cat moving the whole way from South Dakota into Connecticut before being struck by a vehicle and killed,” Keller said.
Does the game commission have a system in place to report mountain lion sightings?
Pennsylvanians are encouraged to report mountain lion sightings to the game commission through a toll-free number such as 1-833-PGC-WILD/1-833-742-9453 or by submitting an online contact form on their website.
The information provided in the report will then make its way to game commission members like Keller or another species biologist for the appropriate region. Keller said they will then walk through what the sighting might be.
“With confirmed sightings, what we’re really looking for is good evidence. So we look for a photo, we’re looking for scat, or we’re looking for tracks specific to mountain lions,” Keller said.
He expressed that collecting any necessary evidence is important when reporting any sightings and added that he has personally received dozens of potential mountain lion sightings each year.
What do you believe people are seeing when they report a mountain lion sighting?
While he said the game commission has not been able to confirm any mountain lions based on the sightings they’ve received, Keller said the large majority that do provide evidence often turn out to be house cats.
He added that most types of evidence provided to the game commission are pictures either from a trail camera or from a remote sensing camera which could make it easy to mistake a common animal for a mountain lion.
“It’s easy to do because it’s hard to tell scale with it in those cameras so as far as how big it really is,” Keller said. “So we can look at those cameras and usually, there’s something in that picture where we can determine scale or we can work with that person that reported it to go back and try to give us something to scale that will help us determine what it was.”
Keller explained that some sightings can also be mistaken for bobcats, coyotes, foxes or some other animal that is commonly confused with a mountain lion.
Could a mountain lion migrate back to Pennsylvania or other surrounding states?
The possibility of a mountain lion making its way to Pennsylvania is rare. However, Keller referenced the mountain lion in 2011 that traveled from South Dakota to Connecticut as the best example of it happening.
“What was interesting with that particular cat is we actually had really good evidence both DNA from scat or hair as well as photographic evidence that we could track that cat moving from South Dakota, through the mid-west, up into the upper mid-west and then down through New York and into Connecticut,” Keller explained. “So that gives a good example of if there is a mountain lion, which we certainly had that as a true wild cat that moved its way across the country, we had really good evidence the whole way along.”
Keller reiterated he and the game commission are not finding good evidence in Pennsylvania that would line up with a similar scenario. While the possibility remains rare, Keller said he would never say never.
How did the eastern mountain lion go extinct?
Keller spoke about the eastern cougar and how it was once common throughout most of the state before European settlers arrived.
“As European settlers came into Pennsylvania and we began to start to clear the forests, we also were bringing in our livestock. So the mountain lion became highly persecuted and we saw that through the 1700s and through the 1800s with some cases involving bounty programs that were put in place for mountain lions,” Keller said.
As mountain lions were killed and their habitats were lost through deforestation, Keller explained the range for the animal continued to shrink until some of the last mountain lions were found in the north-central part of Pennsylvania which also had a last bastion of wilderness. Once the remaining forest was completely cleared and settled and food recourses began disappearing, so did mountain lions.
“There’s different cases we can look back and see historical records but the 1870s and 1880s are likely when some of the last mountain lions were killed here in Pennsylvania,” Keller said.
By 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the eastern cougar was extinct after it had been on the endangered species list since 1973.
Has the idea of reintroducing mountain lions in Pennsylvania been considered?
The idea of reintroducing an apex predator like a mountain lion has not been considered by the game commission but Keller said it has been by other groups or outside entities who believe there are possible ecological benefits of reintroducing the species.
He explained the greatest example of something similar would be wolves in Yellowstone National Park and how its reintroduction had a positive impact on the ecosystem through what’s called the trophic cascade, which is an ecological phenomenon that occurs when a top predator is added or removed in an environment.
Keller said the trophic cascade in Yellowstone affected animals in the area such as elk and beaver which actually changed the course of some rivers.
While there may be ecological benefits to reintroducing mountain lions in Pennsylvania, Keller warned that it’s a two-sided coin.
“We have that ecological side and there may be some very real benefits although we’re not sure what those might be. We would need to conduct some type of a feasibility assessment to really understand it better. But the other side that we often forget about is the social side. So socially with human beings and Pennsylvania residents, it’s really important to consider that side and consider are Pennsylvanian’s ready for the mountain lion to return to the state,” Keller said.
Keller continued by saying mountain lions could have a negative impact on the livestock industry, farmers, hikers, hunters and a variety of other people.
He then explained the metaphorical two-sided coin that is considered by the game commission is the ecological carrying capacity which asks “How many mountain lions could Pennsylvania hold?” and the social carrying capacity which asks “How many mountain lions are Pennsylvanians willing to tolerate?”
Our full interview with Thomas Keller can be watched in the video player above.