Cougars Are Not in Pennsylvania (2022)

Cougars (Puma concolor) are a large cat that goes by many names: panther, catamount, puma, and mountain lion, just to name a few of their over forty common English names. They were once a common predator in Pennsylvania until a combination of range-wide habitat loss, prey loss (mainly white-tailed deer and elk), and predator eradication programs in the 1800s drove them to extinction in the Commonwealth and across the East Coast later that century. Cougars were seen as threats to humans, livestock, and game species, resulting in unlimited harvest and bounties in some states. (The fear of cougars is unfounded. A 2011 study examined cougar attacks across the US and Canada and found that since 1890, there have been only 29 confirmed fatalities.) The last wild cougar in Pennsylvania was killed in 1871 and the last cougar born on the East Coast was killed in 1938 in Maine.

Cougars were officially declared extinct east of the Mississippi in the 1930s. The only population that survived was the Florida panther (Puma concolor couguar), and it only survived with great help from conservationists. The Florida panther reached a population low of 20-30 individuals in 1970s, and currently are between 120-200 sub-adults and adults.

As an apex predator, their extirpation—localized extinction—has caused incalculable harm to the ecosystems of Pennsylvania. They helped to keep prey populations in balance, which created a more diverse and better functioning ecosystem that could respond to disturbances.

While there have been many reports of wild cougars returning to Pennsylvania, none of these have been proven to be wild cougars. Almost all the reported sights have been other animals like bobcats (Lynx rufus), coyotes (Canis latrans), raccoons (Procyon lotor), or large domestic cats (Felis catus). Cougars are kept in captivity by a few people, but these cats are large agile wild animals that are not suited to captivity. A few captive cougars have escaped over the years, but these cats have been quickly recaptured. Besides a lack of physical (scat, hair, or tracks) and photographic evidence, the absence of cougars is also demonstrated by a lack of road-killed cougars. Cougars are often by hit cars—in 2020, at least one-tenth of all Florida panthers (20 out of a maximum population of 200 animals) were hit by cars. This number of car strikes is in spite of having low population densities and the significant efforts to reduce car strikes, such as reduced speed limits, warning signs, and obstacles (fences and road underpasses) built along or under roads that cut through panther habitat.


Figure 1. Cougar range based on sightings and physical evidence (Image credit: LaRue et al, 2008). The green shading represents areas with established breeding populations. Tan shading indicates regions where dispersing juveniles have been sighted, but there are no established populations in these areas.

Current Range

Breeding cougars are almost entirely west of the Mississippi in states like South Dakota, Texas, and California (Figure 1). The Everglades—1,150 miles south of Pennsylvania—is the only known home to a breeding population of cougars in the East (Figure 1). This population is greatly threatened by human develop on all sides. The nearest breed population of cougars is in Nebraska’s Niobrara River Valley—nearly 1,000 miles from Pennsylvania’s eastern border (Figure 1). Isolated juvenile males have been found as far east as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. These young males are looking to establish a new territory and they do not stay in areas without females. No wild cougars have been found in Pennsylvania since their extirpation in 1871.

Cougar Ecology and Dispersal

Young cougars (one- to two-years old) leave their mothers to establish a new territory. Females tend to go an average of 18-30 miles, while males travel much farther (45-170 miles). The distance traveled varies based on habitat, time of year, and study methods. Female cougar territories (25-150 square miles) tend to be smaller and can overlap with other females’ territories. Males’ territories are generally twice the size of a female’s territory (50-350 square miles), and they overlap the territory of several females. Males do not tolerate other males in their territory, and they will fight other males to maintain their territory.

Much of the prime habitat in the West is already occupied by larger more dominate males, so juvenile males make long journeys to disperse to setup a new territory or find an area where they can push out the dominate male. The farther a male must travel the more likely they are to die. Dispersal can be mean treks as long as 1,000 miles in search of territory. Juvenile males are the individuals that are seen outside of “traditional" cougar range in places like Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Dispersing cats do not stay in new areas because there are no females. When they are in these new areas, the young males are almost constantly moving looking for an area with females. They will not find a female in these areas, so they eventually make their way back to the western range or die in the attempt. Juvenile females do not disperse like males, which limits cougar range expansion.

In one extreme dispersal event in 2011, a cougar (that was later found to be related to cats from the Black Hills) made it to Connecticut before it was killed by a car. This cat was in extremely poor condition when it was killed. The cougar was photographed as it made its way from Minnesota to Wisconsin. Then it disappeared for some time, until scat was found again in New York, and it was finally killed in Connecticut. The cat’s journey was well documented—both photographs and genetic samples (fecal matter and hair) were collected along its journey. This demonstrates just how difficult it is for this “secretive” animal to travel without being seen and followed. Its eventual death and poor condition show how difficult dispersal is and unlikely it is for individuals to survive when they disperse outside of their range.

Potential for Restoration

Unfortunately, is it unlikely that cougars will return to Pennsylvania in the near future. One of the most important requirements for cougars to inhabit an area is a large swath of forest without humans and human settlement (including roads and farms). Cougars need areas without humans because they do not like to be around humans and humans kill them (intentionally and unintentionally). Cougars distaste for humans runs so deep that a study found that simply playing talk radio was enough to get these cougars to permanently abandon what they were eating. Pennsylvania is too inhabited to support a population of cougars, unless there are major changes in cougar biology, cougar behavior, and public opinion. A report in 1981 found that it would be impossible to restore cougars to Adirondack Park in New York because there were too many humans. Without some adaptions and major changes in public opinion, it is unlikely that cougars can be restored in Pennsylvania, as the Adirondacks in 1980s was much less populated than Pennsylvania today.

Pennsylvania would be incredibly difficult for cougars to reach. Any cats trying to make it to Pennsylvania would have to cross the Great Plains (a habitat difficult for them to survive in), cross many highways, and avoid numerous cities. While it is possible for a cougar to make this journey, it is highly unlike for individuals to survive the journey. Furthermore, a juvenile female has not been recorded in the Midwest, much less in Pennsylvania, without a change in this trend no breeding populations can be established.




Figure 2. Bobcats (2a; photo credit: Dave Jackson) and coyotes (2b; photo credit Scott Weikert) are often confused for cougars (2c). This photo of a cougar was taken in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (photos obtained by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources).

It’s Not a Cougar It’s Probably a…

Pennsylvania is currently home to only one wild cat: the bobcat. Because this cat is rarely seen, it is commonly confused with cougars, but there are some key differences between bobcats and cougars (Figure 2).

Cougars are a tawny brown to orange and much larger than bobcats; cougars weigh up to a muscular 220lbs; bobcats are grey to brown with black spots and only weigh on average 25lbs. Cougars are seven to eight feet in length (head to tail) and stand two to three feet at the shoulder. Bobcats are much smaller, only two to three feet long (head to tail) and one to two feet high at the shoulder. The tail of the cat is an excellent identification tool: cougars have two- to three-foot-long wiry tails with a black tip, and bobcats have a short “bobbed” tail that is only three to eight inches long. Ears are another way to identify the cat: cougars have rounded ears and bobcat ears have a black tuft.

Coyotes are also confused for cougars (Figure 2). Coyotes are much smaller, and they have shorter fluffier tails, a pointed face, and large triangular ears. House cats and raccoons can also be confused for cougars. They can be easily differentiated by the size of their size (large house cats only weigh 30lb and raccoons 20lbs) and their tails (cougar tails are much longer and wiry). Orange and tan house cats are also confused for cougars. House cats on average are 11lbs and only a foot tall, which is much smaller than a cougar. House cats’ tails and fur are also another excellent way to tell them from cougars. They often carry their tails erect, which is rare for cougars and when done clearly has a bow to it; and house cats can have long coats, which is a sharp contrast from the short coat of a cougar.

It can be difficult to tell how large an animal is in a photo, so it is best to use a known object as a scale. In the cover photo, a cougar is walking by a mature red pine that is roughly 12 to 14 inches in diameter. A walking house cat or raccoon would likely fit within the diameter of the tree. A bobcat or coyote would fit within two or three red pines. The cougar is much larger and needs at least four trees to be covered. Cars and car tires are also good scales; a cougar will be half the length of a sedan and taller than its tires. Where a house cat would be along as a car tire and half the height of a tire. A coyote or bobcat is a little shorter than a tire and roughly one and half the length of tire.


Figure 3. The track of a cougar found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (photo credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

Bobcat and coyote tracks have been misidentified as cougar tracks. The best way to differentiate cougar tracks from other animals is size; cougar tracks are usually four inches from heel to toe and four inches wide, roughly twice the size of bobcats or coyotes. In the snow, the tracks of all mammals appear to be larger this is because the heat from individual animal’s feet melts the snow they step on. In the winter, cougar tracks maybe up to six inches long. The only animal with a similar sized track is the black bear. Black bear can be easily told apart from cougars: black bears have five toes to cougar’s four and their footpads are more elongated. Claws are a great way to tell bear tracks apart from cougar tracks: cougar claws can retract their claws and their claws tend to only be extended when on slippery surfaces, on the other paw, bears cannot control their claws and they can be found on every track. Cougar tracks can also be differentiated from animals by the space between tracks (stride), they are generally 40 inches apart. This is roughly three times the length of a bobcat or coyote’s stride (~16 inches).

Conclusion

Cougars were extirpated from Pennsylvania before the 1900s and exterminated from the entire East Coast by the 1930s (aside from the Florida panther). The nearest breeding populations of cougars are 1,000 miles or more from Pennsylvania. While juvenile males do make long journeys when they are young, they rarely make it to the Lake States (Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin). Without major changes in both cougar biology, cougar behavior, and public opinion, it is unlikely that cougars can return to the wilds of Pennsylvania. It is possible for a cougar to escape captivity and be seen in the wild, but an escaped individual likely would not survive long or be able to establish a breeding population. If a cougar were to make it to Pennsylvania, it is illegal to harm. They are not a threat to humans, and they are a protected species.

Citations

Evanitsky, M.N., George, R.J., Johnson, S., Dowell, S., and Perry, G.H. 2017. Mitochondrial genomes of the regionally extinct Nittany Lion (Puma concolor from Pennsylvania). bioRxiv.

US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2021. Florida panther population estimate updated.

Mattson, D., Kenneth, L., and Sweanor, L. 2011. Factors governing risk of cougar attacks on humans. Human-Wildlife Interactions 5(1) 135-158.

LaRue, M.A., Nielsen, C.K., Dowling, M., Miller, K., Wilson, B., Shaw, H., Anderson, C.R. Jr. 2012. Cougars are recolonizing the Midwest: Analysis of cougar confirmations during 1990–2008. The Journal of Wildlife Management 76(7):1364-1369

Smith, J.A., Suraci, J.P., Clinchy, M., Crawford, A., Roberts, D., Zanette, L.Y. and Wilmers, C.C. 2017. Fear of the human ‘super predator’ reduces feeding time in large carnivores. The Royal Society 284(1857).

Brocke R. 1981. Reintroduction of the cougar (Felis concolor) in Adirondack Park: A problem analysis and recommendations.

Hawley, J.E., Rego, P.W., Wydeven, A.P., Schwartz, M.K., Viner, T.C., Kays R., Pilgrim, K.L., and Jenks, J.A. 2016. Long-distance dispersal of a subadult male cougar from South Dakota to Connecticut documented with DNA evidence. Journal of Mammalogy 97(5):1435-1440

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