Extinction of Eastern cougar met with sadness in Nittany Valley

You’ll understand if the recent proposal from the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to declare the Eastern cougar extinct takes on a
special significance at Penn State, where the Nittany Lion has been
the University’s mascot since 1904.

After a lengthy review, federal officials in March revealed their
conclusion that there are no breeding populations of cougars —
also known as pumas, panthers and mountain lions — in the eastern
United States. Researchers believe the Eastern cougar subspecies
probably has been extinct since the 1930s. So the Eastern cougar
will be removed from the endangered species list, where it was
placed in 1973.

The declaration was met by resignation in Penn State’s College of
Agricultural Sciences, where Gary San Julian, professor of wildlife
resources, has fielded many inquiries about the Eastern cougar’s
status in recent decades. He wanted to believe that some remnant
cougar population survived in northcentral Pennsylvania, or
elsewhere in the East, but he knew better.

“Without some proof, the mountain lions here remain a rural
legend,” he said. “We never have had one killed by a collision with
a vehicle or shot, nor have we even seen a confirmed track,
DNA-verified scat or an indisputable photograph or video. We need
to see proof.”

When you lose a top-level carnivore, it has a major impact on the
whole ecosystem, San Julian noted. But he suggested that people who
call in sightings are afraid of losing something else. “We sort of
give up the wild tradition and history of a place when we lose
something like this,” he said. “People like to think that they’re
still out there.”

As one of two Penn State Extension wildlife specialists, San Julian
has dutifully followed up every cougar report he has received over
the years, looking for scientific evidence. It has never been
there.

“Folks just want verification — I’ve had people get very upset
with me for not agreeing with them,” he said. “But it’s not that I
don’t believe them, I just haven’t seen any proof. We have lots of
remote areas where people seldom go, and our high deer population
would offer cougars bountiful food — so I always hoped the big
cats somehow survived.

“I have no solid evidence that there’s a reproducing population, so
I agree with federal researchers, the Eastern cougar is
extinct.”

The Nittany Lion, however, is still very visible. It first appeared
at a baseball game against Princeton, and a student named Harrison
D. “Joe” Mason (class of 1907) coined the term Nittany Lion and
proclaimed it the “fiercest beast of them all.”

The Nittany Lion, presumably, was an ordinary Pennsylvania mountain
lion, or Eastern cougar. By attaching the prefix “Nittany” to this
creature, Mason gave Penn State a unique symbol that no other
college or university could claim.

The word “Nittany” seems to derive from a Native American term
meaning “single mountain.” Since a number of Algonquian-speaking
tribes inhabited central Pennsylvania, the term can’t be traced to
one single group. These inhabitants applied this description to the
mountain that separates Penns Valley and Nittany Valley,
overlooking what is today the community of State College and Penn
State’s University Park campus.

The first white settlers in the 1700s apparently adopted this term,
or a version of it, when they named that mountain Mount Nittany, or
Nittany Mountain. Thus, by the time Penn State admitted its first
students in 1859, the word “Nittany” was already in use.

So the Nittany Lion lives on; the Eastern cougar does not. It’s a
shame, noted San Julian. “Even if we get proof of a cougar in the
state, there still will be serious doubt about whether the animal
would represent a wild, breeding population,” he said. “It could be
an animal migrating through the commonwealth, or an escaped captive
cougar.

“In a way, the declaration of extinction marks the end of an
age.”

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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