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9/23/2006

State officials hiss at reports of mountain lion sightings

The last known native mountain lion in Pennsylvania was killed in the 1870s, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission

Every year, dozens of people in Pennsylvania report seeing mountain lions.

But the state Game Commission said the animals are rare here, appearing in the wild only by accident. The last known native mountain lion was killed in the state almost 140 years ago, according to the commission.

So perhaps a better question is: Why is it so important for people to believe that there are still -- or again -- big cats in the Pennsylvania woods?

Chris Bolgiano, who lives near Harrisonburg, Va., said the mountain lion brings out a blend of love and fear of the wild, the untamed, the eyes staring back from the dark.

Bolgiano, a professor at James Madison University, is author of "Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People."

"I wonder how it would be to know a panther crouches there again, yellow eyes gleaming, muscles taut, utterly focused," she wrote in "Mountain Lion." "How it would be to accept the risks with understanding and respect, in return for the rightness. ... It would feel, I think, like freedom."

Bolgiano has been a science reporter for about 25 years and teaches forest ecology.

"There is just something about mountain lions that captures people's imaginations," she said. "You talk about our inner landscape, well, it has to do a lot with language, I think. Calling it a lion evokes centuries of myth and lore. ... We are a thrill-seeking society. We want the highest and the biggest and the fastest of everything. Mountain lions fill that bill."

Jim, who has raised mountain lions, said he thinks part of the attraction is that mountain lions are elusive. He didn't give his last name so as not to attract visitors to his property, near the 160,000-acre Tioga State Forest.

"It's a kind of a mystique," he said. "We've had tons and tons of people come out to visit the cats. People would come with video cameras, school kids would come out and write essays. Kids would say, 'I wish I could hug it.'"

Jim said he's sure there are mountain lions -- or at least big cats of mixed lineage -- in the state. When his female cats went into heat, they would get visits from wild male cats, he said. He said he once found a female lion's lair in the wild and believes she had cubs.

"I have seen the cat umpteen times, and my neighbors saw it," he said.

The argument over whether there are still cougars in the state will likely continue until somebody kills or catches one and drops it on a game warden's desk.

The Game Commission said those who report seeing a mountain lion might be seeing an escaped exotic pet here and there, but more than likely they saw something else.

"I've been hunting for years, and I know what I saw," said Thomas E. Rothenberger Sr., 66, of Harrisburg.

He and his wife were traveling in Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon area near Wellsboro, Tioga County, two years ago when they saw -- and photographed -- a mountain lion, he said.

"It would have been 6 feet tall if it stood on its back legs," Rothenberger said. "It was definitely a mountain lion."

"Our official position is that there are not wild, native breeding mountain lions out there. That is incredibly unlikely," said Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "Here's why: At the end of the last century, what had been Penn's Woods had turned into Penn's fields. Most of the forests had been cut down, and deer, beaver, bear and other animals were on the verge of extinction. ... The last known native mountain lion was killed in the 1870s."

Now, folks might be seeing bobcats or other creatures, but probably not mountain lions, Feaser said.

"Maybe people think we question their integrity, which we do not," he said. "But we suggest that what they saw may not be what they think it was. It may be a simple, honest mistake, nothing to be embarrassed about."

Still, Feaser said, there would be an upside to finding out that the big cats are still out there.

"If it was thought to be extinct and suddenly found again, it would be as if it survived despite everything man threw at it, from bounties to stripping of the landscape in the 1800s," he said.

Bolgiano agreed that there might be atonement involved.

"I think a certain percentage of people realize how destructively we've treated mountain lions," she said. "If they came back, it would be a sort of absolution, as if Mother Nature gave us a second chance."

T.W. BURGER: 249-2006 or tburger@patriot-news.com

UPDATE

A family in Mifflin Twp., upper Dauphin County, said they thought their horse was attacked by a mountain lion on July 10. The horse, which recovered, probably was attacked by a bear, said Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which investigated the incident.