Pitt’s mascot might be declared extinct

By Amy Friedenberger

Roc the Panther, Pitt’s mascot, might be one of the last eastern cougars still in existence in… Roc the Panther, Pitt’s mascot, might be one of the last eastern cougars still in existence in the northeastern part of the United States. Unfortunately, he doesn’t count.

Although the eastern cougar is known by many names — mountain lion, puma, panther, catamount and painter — ghost cat might be more appropriate.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal government agency within the Department of the Interior, declared the eastern cougar extinct earlier this month and recommended that it be removed from the nation’s list of endangered species, where it has resided since 1973.

It’s been more than a century since Pitt adopted the panther as its mascot. Students and alumni chose the panther in the fall of 1909, according to Pitt’s website.

The panther was selected because it was a “fearsome animal and indigenous to the area,” historically considered a noble animal, happened to create alliteration and is naturally gold in color and would therefore match Pitt’s color theme. Additionally, no other college had a panther as a mascot at the time.

The wildlife service conducted a review of 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar. After requesting information from 21 states that are within the historical range of the subspecies, the agency found that none reported the existence of an eastern cougar population.

The agency is now in the process of preparing a proposal for the removal of the eastern cougar from the endangered species list. If it does, then the animal would no longer be eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision would also prevent the wildlife service from reintroducing the cougar to the east.

But before the agency makes a final decision, it will open the proposal to the public and allow it to contribute information — all in accordance with the act.

Initially, cougars were hunted by early European settlers. According to the agency, states put bounties on the cougar because they threatened livestock. Over time, deforestation, hunting and the declined population of the white-tailed deer — the cougar’s main prey — resulted in a decline of the cougar population.

Mark McCollough, the agency’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar, said that events called “circle hunts” in Pennsylvania also contributed to the declining population. He said that hunters would gather in a circle and close in on cougars to kill them. Some men hunted cougars as a full-time job.

The last confirmed eastern cougar was trapped in the ’30s, but the agency added the species to the list when it was made in the ‘70s. Although the eastern cougar remained on the endangered species list, McCollough said that it has most likely been extinct since that last confirmed cougar.

“There were some status reviews in the 1970s before the Endangered Species Act was created,” McCollough said. But some research at the time suggested that cougars still existed in the eastern part of North America. “Some books and research talk about cougars existing in the 1960s and 1970s.”

vThe agency hears reports from people who claim to have seen cougars in the Northeast, but they are often deemed misidentifications or sightings of cougars from another region that people might have illegally bought as pets and then released.

“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” said the service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies that had migrated eastward to the Midwest.”