No mountsain lions in Pa?|jon_downes||02/02/04 at 20:16:41|jon_downes|xx|0||Despite recent reports, experts say no mountain lions in Pa.

The Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) The experts have heard it all before, but still answer the same way: Reports of the return of mountain lions to Pennsylvania are greatly exaggerated.

Several reports of mountain lion sightings have been made recently in Lancaster County, and reports are not uncommon elsewhere in the state. But officials from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Penn State University maintain there has been no conclusive evidence of mountain lions since the last of the state's wild lions was killed in the 1880s.

"Every year, for two weeks, you've got a million deer hunters out there, and we never see any evidence of one," Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said. "We've never had one struck by a vehicle that's reported."

Individuals reported seeing a lion in the Welsh Mountain area of Lancaster County beginning in October: a man saw the cougar lying in an open field, a woman saw it chasing deer, a goat was mauled, a dog was injured in a fight with another animal. There was enough concern that the Game Commission held a public meeting to address concerned citizens.

But since then, no evidence has turned up to confirm the sightings. A veterinarian determined that the dog was attacked by another dog or a coyote. The goat had decomposed too much to determine what had killed it. And a sweep of the area turned up no hard evidence, such as cougar tracks or scat.

Feaser and Gary San Julian, professor of wildlife resources at Penn State, both said individual mountain lions roaming the Pennsylvania countryside if there are any most likely are pets that were illegally released. But there's little evidence even of that.

"To have a breeding, existing population, you would have to have enough animals that one of them is going to have to be killed by a vehicle collision, spotted, shot, trapped," Feaser said.

In the wild, looks can be deceiving, San Julian said. Shadows might make an animal appear larger than it actually is, or a track can be misconstrued. Animals identified as mountain lions often turn out to be bobcats, coyotes or dogs.

"This may sound weird, but if they're far enough away it could be a large house cat and they just have no reference scale," San Julian said.

Don't tell that to those people who swear they've seen a mountain lion.

"I did see one. I didn't think I saw it, I did see it," said Lois Beardsley, 74, of Honesdale, who reported seeing a mountain lion outside her home in the spring of 2002. "Nobody will ever talk me out of that."

Beardsley said neighbors also have reported seeing the mountain lion and even seeing cubs.

Centuries ago, mountain lions were among the natural predators that roamed eastern forests. But hunting and deforestation took their toll the only wild population now known to exist in the East are the Florida panthers.

But in recent years, biologists have confirmed mountain lion sightings in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Minnesota, and some speculate that the animals may be migrating east, just as coyotes did 100 years ago.

Jonathan Evans, associate professor of biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., said Pennsylvania has the habitat to support mountain lions and might actually have populations hidden in its forests.

"Habitat does exist in the Southern Appalachians, in West Virginia and in the state lands of Pennsylvania, to support mountain lions," Evans said. "And certainly now that the white-tailed deer has rebounded and, in many places, over-rebounded to levels that it had been historically, the food supply is there. The potential exists."

But until here's hard proof, Feaser said, the mountain lion will remain among the species thought to have been extirpated from the state.

"It's like a hope. If a mountain lion were confirmed in Pennsylvania, it would prove in their minds that anything is possible, that wildlife truly can come back from the abyss," Feaser said. "And to be honest, some of our biologists would be hard to be contained in their excitement if they could prove there was a mountain lion."