Mountain lions - also called cougars or pumas - were native to the entirety of North America, though they have been exterminated in much of their historical range due to conflict with humans and loss of habitat.
Although officially declared extinct in Pennsylvania, sightings of mountain lions continue to be reported, with many witnesses believing the animals to be native rather than instances of immigration or pets being illegally released.
Pennsylvania enacted a bounty on mountain lions in 1807, and in 1874, the last known native mountain lion in PA was killed by Thomas Anson. It was stuffed and is on display at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
The eastern mountain lion was one of 11 subspecies of mountain lion native to North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the subspecies officially extinct, and there are thought to be no native mountain lion populations remaining east of the Mississippi (barring a small, genetically distinct population of the Florida mountain lion in the southeastern U.S.).
The eastern mountain lion (felis concolor couguar) was listed as a federally endangered subspecies on June 4, 1973, the same year that Congress passed the Federal Endangered Species Act. In Canada, it was officially declared extinct in 1998, though this was merely a formality as no proven sightings of eastern mountain lions have been documented in recent decades.
Some research suggests that the eastern cougar may never have been genetically distinct from the western subspecies at all, but this has yet to be either proven or disproven.
It has been documented through genetic testing that western mountain lions from South Dakota have traveled eastward as far as Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, and Connecticut. These are generally thought to be young adult animals seeking new territories.
In June 2011, an adult mountain lion was killed by a vehicle in Connecticut. The animal had previously been sighted from late 2009 to early 2010 in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Genetic testing revealed it to be a western mountain lion.
The vast majority of sightings must be taken with a grain of salt. People misidentify animals all the time, and even when a sighting seems credible, there exists the possibility that the animal may be an escaped or released pet, or a western cat that traveled much further than is typical.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
"...[T]here is currently no scientific or physical evidence documenting the continued existence of a population of wild eastern cougars. The cougars examined in the Northeast in the past 70 years are likely released or escaped captives. Some cats had a South American genetic profile."
There is no scientific proof of a breeding population of mountain lions in Pennsylvania having persisted throughout the 1900s to the modern day. Despite this, local sightings have continued since the last known Pennsylvanian cougar was killed, and seem to be on the rise.
One noteworthy sighting occurred in 1966, long before federal protection existed to aid in mountain lion dispersal from western states. Peggy Ann Bradnick was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to travel miles through the backwoods of south-central Pennsylvania. She and her captor were the focus of what was then the largest manhunt in U.S. history. She claims to have seen a mountain lion during this ordeal, and the sighting is mentioned in her book, The Voice in the Mountains.
Pennsylvania Senator Roger Madigan claims to have seen a mountain lion while at an outdoor party - one which happened to include a roast pig barbecue, perhaps attracting the animal with the smell of the meat.
Other reports come from Montour County, and many other parts of the state. Witnesses describe large, tan- or light brown-colored felines with long tails, often likening them to female African lions but noting that they are slender and graceful.
A number of photos that have been claimed to show Pennsylvanian mountain lions are deliberate hoaxes. This alleged case of a mountain lion killed by a truck on Mill Creek Road in Huntingdon County, for example, uses photos of a 200lb male mountain lion legally hunted and shot in Arizona.