Wednesday, May 11, 2011
University Park, Pa. — 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.
Many wildlife biologists believe that native populations of the big cat were wiped out by man a century ago. 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.”