When the first Europeans arrived in America, the mountain lion was the most widely distributed animal in the Western Hemisphere. One of the most incredible predators found in the western hemisphere, these American lions are known for their uniqueness, power, and grace. By the late 1800s, mountain lions were wiped out of almost the entire eastern United States due to hunting, trapping, deforestation, and the decimation of their main prey — white-tailed deer. Between human assault and a dwindling food source, the eastern cougar became an early casualty of American expansion, living on only in legend.
However, rumors exist of mountain lions still living in some eastern states including Pennsylvania, an assertion that has been debated for decades. Listen to our first Pennsylvania Life, Legends and Lore podcast episode to learn more about the legend of the Nittany Lion: https://open.spotify.com/episode/23jjYCGI9zlmWoC81LQQ9E?si=H_uf9t0JRi-VJWEm7zBlZg
We have also provided supporting research and facts for Episode 1: The Nittany Lion below:
Mountain Lion Facts:
- While mountain lions rarely weigh over 200 pounds, one record-holding cat weighed in at 276. pounds! For comparison, that’s more than a giant panda, which averages about 245 pounds.
It’s also about the average size of a female African lion, which weighs about 280 pounds.
- Males average around 7.9 feet from nose to tail tip, while females average 6.7 feet in length.
- Mountain lions have the largest hind legs of all the members of the cat family – making them great jumpers – able to leap from the ground 18 feet up into a tree and jump spans of 40 feet.
Their large, long legs also help mountain lions adapt to a variety of situations and terrains – and it allows them to reach impressive speeds of up to 50 miles per hour! Although they can only maintain this top speed for short periods of time, they are able to sustain speeds up to 10 mph for long-distance sprints.
- Adult cougar paw prints are about 4-5 inches across for males and less than 3.5 inches for females. Their heel pad has a notable “M” shape at the bottom with a divot on top.
One of the easiest ways to identify a mountain lion track is to look for claws – or rather, the lack thereof. Like most other species in the cat family, mountain lions can retract their claws, and usually keep their claws withdrawn unless they are maneuvering on difficult terrain. This means that, unless you’re looking at particularly rough ground, you won’t see the sign of claws in their tracks.
Cougars do not retreat to a “home base” cave or a den for sleeping. They are continually on the move around their territory, and they find a suitably sheltered spot to sleep when they wish.
- Mountain lions rarely attack humans because people are not recognized as prey. They are very solitary creatures who prefer to pass by unseen. Even when living alongside humans, they rarely make their presence known. This may begin to change as humans continue to encroach into their habitat, and it will be inevitable the number of encounters will increase. But cougars do not usually attack unless they feel cornered, or if someone running away from them, which triggers a chase response.
- On average, adult male mountain lions have a home range covering from 50-150 square miles. Females have slightly smaller ranges of about 50 square miles.
- Male mountain lions will not overlap territories with other males, and young males may travel very far to establish their own area. Female cougars have less of a problem with their ranges overlapping with other females. Often young female cougars will choose a territory next to the one in which they were born.
- Mountain lions can roam as far as 10 to 20 miles a day.
- With a diverse diet and the ability to live everywhere from rain forests to deserts, to snowy peaks, mountain lions once existed in almost every ecosystem in North and South America.
During the afternoon of Sept. 13, 1996, Kathe Worrell of Landenberg, Pennsylvania, said she saw a cougar near Yorklyn off Sharpless Road, the location of her old home at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Residents of Lower Milford Township of the Lehigh Valley made about a dozen mountain lion reports in 1998 and 1999, while another person claimed to see a mountain lion in 1996 near Bake Oven Knob in Heidelberg Township.
In January 2004, the state game commission stated a lion was roaming the area around Welsh Mountain in Lancaster County, where numerous sightings were reported, and a 70-pound dog was mauled. Despite finding some large paw prints and collecting hair samples, the animal was never found.
With 37 years of hunting experience under his belt, Pat McCully has plentiful knowledge about wildlife. So, he could hardly believe his eyes the morning of Oct. 8, 2005, when a mountain lion walked past him while he was turkey hunting near his Central Pennsylvania home.
A ghost cat was sighted in the vast Delaware State Forest region of Pike County in early October of 2007. Reports of a mountain lion came from several residents of Hemlock Farms who were hiking on trails in the forest adjoining this sprawling community. A security guard claims to have seen a mother lion with cubs. Large footprints were discovered and photographed by a biologist during this same timeframe and were studied. We could not find the results of their findings.
Social media channels are filled with stories of the elusive mountain lion. Just try a google search. In this YouTube interview, eyewitnesses talk about hitting a cougar in Pennsylvania with a vehicle in 2017. They also discuss other reports from the same area in Indiana County in Western Pennsylvania. Despite multiple and persistent eyewitness reports, the State Game Commission continues to state that there are no mountain lions living in Pennsylvania.
- In 2018 a rash of mountain lion sightings occurred in Northern York County, PA. According to local news sources, Stacey Griffiths and her friend Dr. David Foster documented more than a dozen instances between May and August of 2018, in which people claimed to have seen or heard a mountain lion in Central Pennsylvania.
On July 17th, 2018, Stacy Griffiths posted an update on the Facebook page Mountain Lions of Pennsylvania Info Library. In it she stated that the Eastern Puma Network confirmed that the horses were indeed attacked by a mountain lion. A representative from the Eastern Puma Association inspected the wounds on the horses as well as the surrounding area and found evidence that the horses, as a team, drove off the mountain lion with as much force as they could exert. The cat also made markings on a nearby locust tree, which was on the direct path it took from the state game lands to the farm where it attacked the horses. Several days after these horses were attacked, a mountain lion was identified by two individuals at another horse farm on Glenwood Road.
The full update can be read here:
- Also in 2018, News Watch 16 covered a sighting of a large cat caught by a surveillance camera in the backyard of a Clarks Summit home. The sighting received much debate on Facebook when a family member posted the image. The state game commission determined it was a large male bobcat. The sighting continues to be debated and you can check it out for yourself here:
Facebook is home to multiple groups centered on sightings of the eastern mountain lion – not just those in Pennsylvania. If you’d like to delve into the topic more, and read about people’s experiences, simply do a search for PA mountain lion sightings or eastern mountain lion sightings.
Local Sightings :
Sightings of this controversial animal are reported every year from the forests of Pennsylvania, especially during hunting season when thousands of people are stalking the woods. Locally, we’ve had many responses to our social media posts asking for mountain lion sighting stories. Here are a few we can share:
- Diane Sholley, who lives near the Raymond B. Winter State Park, has reported seeing a golden or tawny mountain lion in the fields near her mountain home on several occasions over the years since the mid-90s. She has also heard the animal’s screams. Her husband had an encounter with a different mountain lion on his way home one evening in the early 2000s. It was dusk, and rainy so he was taking the winding mountain roads a little slower than usual. As he rounded a bend in the road, he saw a large cat cross the road in front of him. It was dark in coloration – more of a grayish brown- but he had no doubt that he had seen a mountain lion. The cat was large with a long tail, and it was not afraid of the oncoming car. But as Stan slowed down, the animal dashed into the woods.
- About 10 years ago, Sara D. From Lewisburg, PA saw a mountain lion standing on I-80 while traveling westward with a friend in Pennsylvania. Initially, she thought it was a yellow lab due to its size, and she slowed down not wanting to hit the animal. Sara and her friend were in the middle of nowhere- not near any homes and thought someone had dumped their dog. But as they got closer realized it was a large cat, and it had a very long tail…. definitely not a bobcat.
- Over Memorial Day weekend in 2005, Steven Spangler was staying with friends at a Halfway Dam campsite. He had to go to work in the morning and left at 3 am, heading down the mountain. About 3 miles below the dam he saw a mountain lion on the right side of the road. It crossed the road about halfway, then turned back around. It was a large cat with a long tail and black tip. About 150 yards further down the road he saw another set of cat-like eyes peering out from the woods on the left-hand side of the road.
Steven is a hunter, outdoorsman, and contractor who has and has built over 200 mountain cabins between Virginia and NY. He is well-versed in the differences between mountain lions, and animals that are mistaken for them such as bobcats and coyotes. Steve has also seen mountain lion tracks and scat in the Northern tier of PA.
A friend of Steven’s who farms in Chambersburg has seen a mountain lion in his wheat fields multiple times in recent years. Once, he was able to get very close to it before it disappeared into a tree line. This cat was also golden in color with a long tail and black tip.
A few years ago, a group of Steven’s friends caught one in a hunting drive at their cabin in the Halfway Dam area and tried to shoot it but missed or failed to find it. They couldn’t find a blood trail.
Steve’s friend, Troy N. saw one recently on Route 192 just above Halfway Dam, and he and his friend Terry have regularly heard mountain lion screams in that area.
- In May of 2022, Rick B. was traveling down Paxtonville Rd. in Middleburg, PA, and struck a large cat with his vehicle. It was dusk and he was traveling with a friend, who also witnessed the large tawny-colored cat with a long tail dash into the woods. They drove a short distance down the road before stopping and turning back to investigate the scene. No blood, no hair, no sign of an animal. However, the animal he struck was large enough to cause $4,000 worth of damage to his vehicle and walk away.
There have been many mountain lion sightings in other eastern states including those that border Pennsylvania.
- In 2014, an Ohio wildlife officer walking in Shawnee State Forest in Jefferson County spotted a mountain lion that he felt looked like a western mountain lion. It was the first verified Ohio sighting of a mountain lion in a decade. The officer reported that the color of the animal and the long tail were consistent with a cougar. The officer watched the cat for about 20 seconds before it disappeared into a tree line, and states he was certain of its identification.
Researchers have developed the Cougar Network to provide information about mountain lions and to list verified sightings.
- In 2015, a mountain lion sighting was confirmed in Tennessee. It occurred at 8:02 p.m., according to the timestamp at the bottom of the image.
- In November of 2015, two days after Thanksgiving, Austin Burton set out to check his trail cameras. What he found was conclusive proof that a mountain lion, or a pair of mountain lions, were indeed in Tennessee. In the video the mountain lion appears to be investigating deer droppings. Burton lives in Humphreys County, about 30 miles from Nashville.
The two 2015 cases were hardly the only mountain lion sightings in the East, nor were they even the only confirmed sightings. Another confirmed sighting occurred in Carrol County, TN, where the animal was also examining deer scat. Footage for that incident was not posted.
For years, mountain lions have been spotted across their old habitat, including through Appalachia and the Northeast. Wandering cougars have also been found in Louisiana and Arkansas, affirming the suspicions of some biologists that the animals are moving east. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Southern Illinois University Carbondale recently published a study that found increased sightings of the big cats in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Kansas. In 2011, a male mountain lion was hit by a car and killed on a highway in suburban Connecticut. Genetic testing suggested the cougar left South Dakota roughly 2 years and 1,500 miles earlier, travelling through the sprawling Midwest and Northeast without being detected until it was nearly at the Atlantic Ocean.
- On January 18, 2022, Rob Carney, a skilled hunter with 30 years of experience, saw what appeared to be a mountain lion come onto his property in southwest Dickson County, Tennessee. Carney owns about 10 acres of land, and he stated that around 3:30 p.m., he saw a large, light-colored cat approximately two-and-a-half feet tall and four feet long, indicating to Carney it was a female. He said the animal ran across the road, across his front yard, and then into the woods.
According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, mountain lions, were driven from the state in the early 1900s due to overhunting and loss of habitat. However, the agency reported 10 confirmed mountain lion sightings in 2015 and 2016, with six of those sightings in Humphreys County, which borders Dickson County and is not too far from Carney’s residence.
- In December of 2021, Pamela Eppinger and Jim Coldiron saw a mountain lion while driving through the Brandywine Valley, in Delaware, on their way to Tractor Supply.
- Denise Kunzig, who lives in Orchard Valley on Bayard Road in Pennsylvania, claims she saw a cougar right before Thanksgiving in 2021 as she was walking her dog at 9:30 p.m. David Williams, who lives in the same area, shared a similar experience.
- In August of 2021, Lindsay Holden of Chichester, NH spotted a mountain lion in her backyard, beyond her deck near the woods. A hardy New Englander and lover of the outdoors, Holden is well versed in the differences between bobcats and mountain lions. She has seen bobcats many times around her property, and this, she affirms, was not a bobcat. It was much larger, tawny in color with a long tail and black tip.
- In September of 2021, there were several reported sightings of mountain lions in rural areas of the Twin Tiers. On Tuesday, September 28, the Choconut Inn in Friendsville, Pennsylvania jumped in on the conversation with a Facebook post that read, “Hi everyone there’s been numerous mountain lion sightings by Quaker Lake. Please use caution. Especially at night.”
The post by Choconut Inn garnered over 100 comments which ranged from those who insist they’ve seen the big cat with their own eyes to those who say it’s more likely that what people have seen are just big bobcats. Obviously, people have a lot of opinions on whether mountain lions have found their way back to the Twin Tiers.
While there is no argument that mountain lions are very much still alive, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that the eastern cougar has been extinct for some 70 years. Still, questions remain. Have mountain lions been migrating from the west to the east? Has the average bobcat just grown so large that people are confused about what they’re seeing? Or did this ghost cat somehow manage to survive in the most remote areas because of its natural instincts and stealthy behavior? Here are some closing thoughts to consider.
The habitat in which mountain lions can live is vast and by nature they easily adapt to even the harshest conditions. Over the centuries, since settlers first arrived in North America, industry has grown, cities have expanded, and land has been developed. However, even today, North America and the United States is blessed with vast areas of remote, unadulterated wilderness, state and national parkland, and nature preserves. One question that continued to be raised is how do we know that the eastern cougar is extinct? How was this determined? Also, within the last 20 years there have been 14 species found in the wild that were previously classified as extinct. How do we really know the eastern mountain lion won’t be a similar case?
In the 1990’s the rules determining extinction were tightened and clarified, and as a result, today, the World Conservation Union will label a species extinct only if “there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.” In general, scientists must now show that repeated efforts to survey a species’ known habitat failed to turn up any individual sightings or evidence of its continued survival.
But just in Pennsylvania, there are 17 million acres of forest within the state – more than half of the state. Moreover, the mountainous wilderness of northern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains of New York state have areas so remote they are virtually inaccessible. The weather in these regions can be unpredictable and even deadly to the most experienced adventurers. How were these isolated regions surveyed for breeding populations? Furthermore, since the range of mountain lions was found in the past to extend as far north as Novia Scotia, it seems plausible that cougar populations could have sought refuge in the more extreme northern regions of North America and could repopulate their prior territories in the northern United States as numbers increase.
Perhaps the primary argument against the continued existence of eastern mountain lion is the lack of hard evidence – no clear photos, no definitive paw prints or droppings, no roadkill. But this isn’t exactly the truth. We have already discussed the many cases where mountain lions were sighted, paw prints were found, and photos were captured. It has always been decided that these animals must have escaped captivity, and aren’t part of a small, but growing wild population. While researching this topic, we reached out to Stacey Griffiths, who helped investigate the 2018 horse attack incident. She affirms that mountain lion sightings still occur regularly in her area, but the game commission has effectively ignored all the evidence they have brought forward.
Also, we are talking about an animal that at its core is elusive, with territories of 50-150 square miles that rarely overlap. Unless starving, they will not wander into populated areas. Solitary creatures, mountain lions pass through their territories silently and naturally avoid spaces where they sense people. With wild areas in Pennsylvania such as Quehanna (48,000 acres), and Hammersley (30,000 acres), there are plenty of secluded spots where a mountain lion could roam completely undetected. These wild regions are large expanses of relatively undisturbed forest that are set aside to protect wildlife and have plenty of deer that could feed large cats. Because of how remote these regions are, people would not be likely to cross paths with a lion hiding within. Mountain lions usually do not make themselves visible unless they want to be seen.
With this in mind, it does not seem strange that we do not have much concrete evidence in the form of trail camera pictures, paw prints, scat, and roadkill. Because if, in fact, there is a small population of mountain lions that have persisted, or migrated into Pennsylvania, they wouldn’t be anywhere where we would find them.
Those who argue against the presence of mountain lions on the east coast also claim that it’s unlikely a lion would travel that far to get here. The lion would likely have come from Nebraska or Wyoming, where their known habitat ends. But young male cougars can travel hundreds of miles searching for food or a mate, so it’s not out of the question that it could happen, as we saw in the case of the Connecticut mountain lion. Obviously, it’s quite a strange occurrence for any mammal to travel that far, but if there is one case, there definitely could be more. Considering the confirmed cases of cougars migrating further east into the Midwest, it is plausible that some have made their way into the wilds of Pennsylvania. There is enough wooded area to keep them secluded as they pass through, and enough deer to feed them.
It might be years before any solid answers are provided, which means the folklore and debates about mountain lion sightings in Pennsylvania will most certainly rage on.
The Mountain Lions of Pennsylvania info library was created to focus on organizing the reports of mountain lions in Pennsylvania. They have compiled a google map of unconfirmed public reports, pictures, videos, and historical information regarding this topic, which is very interesting to check out. It can be found here: