2012-03-03 / Outdoors

Do mountain lions exist in the wild in Pennsylvania?

We’ve all heard the occasional stories of mountain lion sightings in the big woods of northcentral Pennsylvania and have seen photographs of cougars or their tracks that were supposedly taken in Pennsylvania.

Most of the sightings seem doubtful. However, a handful of the accounts have been from experienced, reliable witnesses who would not say that they saw a mountain lion unless they were certain.

The last wild populations of the eastern subspecies of mountain lions were officially extirpated from the Commonwealth in the late 1800s. However, sightings of the large cats have continued through the years.

Could the mountain lion – sometimes called cougar or puma -- live in Pennsylvania?

I believe the answer is yes. These animals are quite adaptable and live in a diversity of habitats. Pennsylvania has plenty of large forest tracts and a large deer herd, as well as numerous smaller prey species, for supporting a mountain lion population. The large cats would thrive in the wilder regions of the state.

But, is there a breeding mountain lion population in Pennsylvania? Probably not. If the population were here, the evidence would be undeniable.

Although unlikely, it is possible that a wild mountain lion population could one day reestablish itself in the Commonwealth. From time to time, domesticated mountain lions escape or are released into the wild. It is also not impossible for mountain lions from western populations to migrate east.

If several wild or domesticated cats were to be in the same area at the same time, it would not take too long to establish a wild population.

From time to time, wild mountain lions are seen in eastern South Dakota and in Iowa. It seems these cats follow the forested stream corridors through less hospitable habitats as they travel eastward.

However, the most epic mountain lion eastern migration ever recorded occurred last year. Last June in a relatively populated area of Connecticut, a large male cougar was killed on the highway.

At first, officials assumed that the large cat was an escaped pet. However, things just didn’t add up. DNA tests were done on the dead animal’s tissue and an incredible tale began to unfold.

It matched the DNA from mountain lion populations in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. During the last several years there had been several confirmed mountain lion sightings in Wisconsin and Minnesota. At some of these sites, scat and hair were recovered and DNA samples were taken. These DNA samples were matched with those from the Connecticut cat and found to be from the same individual.

Pennsylvania stands between Connecticut and Wisconsin. Did this wild mountain lion traverse Penn’s Woods? It could have done so, but it appears the answer is no.

Sometime after the samples were collected, a trail camera in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan took a picture of a mountain lion that is believed to be the Connecticut cat. This evidence leads officials to believe that the cat continued eastward on a route that took it through Ontario -- and not south of the Great Lakes through Pennsylvania.

What an incredible journey! Where the cat was killed in Connecticut is more than 1,500 miles from where it was born.

What would cause a wild mountain lion to travel such a great distance? Juvenile males normally disperse about 100 miles from where they were born.

It appears this male mountain lion dispersed, but he went the wrong direction. When he couldn’t find any other populations of his kind, this stubborn cat just kept pushing forward, eventually traversing over halfway across North America.

So, could wild mountain lions one day reestablish a population in Pennsylvania? This question was answered last June on a busy highway in Connecticut. But it is still very unlikely.

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