Prominent Pennsylvania Puma Seeker Dies

Cryptomundo Exclusive Obituary

On Saturday, February 18, 2006, at 6:05 AM, in Pennsylvania, one of the country’s best-kept-secrets, a modest but renowned behind-the-scenes eastern cougar hunter passed away. Roger Cowburn, 77, of Potter County, Pennsylvania, died.

Roger Cowburn

Roger Cowburn of Galeton, Pennslyvania, is a member of the Eastern Puma Research Network, a group actively searching for evidence that eastern panthers are still found in parts of eastern North America. (G. Parker)

The Penn State’s Nittany Lions are nationally known, mostly as a football team. But the “Nittany Lions” didn’t pop out of the air as a name. Nittany is the mountain where, legend has it, Pennsylvania’s last puma was shot.

But Roger Cowburn knew the last mountain lion of Pennsylvania was not really dead. Whether you call it one of its hundreds of names, a cougar, painter, panther, puma, mountain lion, Puma concolor, or Felis concolor, Cowburn had found proof that convinced him the large, long-tailed cats still lived in the state.

Cowburn understood the forests and fields, and appreciated what animals were in them. As The Valley Independent city editor and outsdoor sports reporter Bob Frye wrote a few years ago:

Roger Cowburn grew up in the woods. By 1940, at the age of 12, he was a hunter and by 1955 he was guiding “flatlanders” – what he and his neighbors around Galeton, Potter County, used to call hunters from New York and southern Pennsylvania – when they came up to hunt. Things went well enough – he was getting $10 per hunter per day – that by 1966 he bought and opened a hunting lodge that employed eight and slept 56.

Cowburn’s lodge was often filled with deer hunters who had come to Pennsylvania, and he was as good a guide as there was around for knowing where to go to find the animals. “I could take you [to special locations] at night and you could see 500 deer in one field,” he told Frye.

Cowburn was one of the first to see the deer population was exploding in Pennsylvania, beyond what the state’s game commission could do to manage the increase. The deer population was getting out of control, causing widespread crop damage and devastating the very forests they live in. Cowburn surprised many of his family and friends by being an early advocate of an open doe season.

Frye recalled:

“Guys like my dad and my uncle used to go around to sportsmen’s clubs and buy all of the doe tags and then not hunt. They wanted to make sure nobody killed the doe. They’d buy them up and burn them up,” Cowburn had remembered a few years back.

Cowburn, who succeeded his dad and uncle as president of the Ulysses Conservation Club, tried to convince them they were wrong. The overabundance of deer was killing farmers, he told them, and destroying the deer’s own habitat. He couldn’t reach them, though. “My dad used to fight me something awful over the doe.”

“That generation is gone,” he says. “They were good hunters, and good sportsmen, but they missed the boat on doe. I think at least some people today are starting to realize that, and it has to be. It has to be.”

Something else was happening with an increased deer population. The surviving mountain lions tucked away in wilderness pockets in Pennsylvania was coming back too, even though few in the Pennsylvania Game Commission believed it, or even believe it today.

Cowburn thought otherwise. For years he’d interviewed witnesses who had seen the big cats in the state. And he had collected material evidence that people had a hard time denying too. In one meeting, State Sen. Roger A. Madigan, R-Towanda, and state Game Commission officials viewed such evidence presented by retired Mansfield University professor Dennis Wydra that Wydra believed confirmed the existence of mountain lions in the wilds of central Pennsylvania. The closed-door meeting at Madigan’s Williamsport office had a bigger impact because of the physical evidence there.

Wydra displayed plaster footcasts of bear, wolf and mountain lion tracks “taken by Roger Cowburn of Ulysses,” as one media account mentioned, in almost a footnote whisper, at the Lick Run area on State Game Lands. Wydra also showed a shirt that supposedly had been found with mountain lion fecal matter and large claw marks on it. Behind-the-scenes, but important, that was the way Cowburn liked it.

One author, who will remain unnameless, perhaps not even having talked to Roger Cowburn, had quoted Cowburn as saying that the Pennsylvania Game Commission “was no more trustworthy than the KGB.” Maybe it is merely an allegorical tale told among the media and puma seekers in Pennsylvania, but even if he didn’t say it, Cowburn probably felt it. He knew the mountain lions were leaving tracks in the state, and he’d seen the proof, no matter what any official at any agency had said.

Roger Cowburn had many true friends among the three organizations gathering eastern cougar sighting information and data, and they’ll all miss him. But this isn’t about them; it’s about Cowburn and his achievements, because for a long time his was a name you didn’t hear. But he was there, in the woods, in the field, in the background, tracking, talking, and teaching about the pumas still in his state.

It doesn’t matter any longer to Roger Cowburn. He won’t be searching for them tomorrow.

Cowburn knew the big cats were still out there. That was enough for him.

One Response

  1. Loren Coleman
    Loren Coleman February 19, 2006 at 9:02 pm |

    The source for the origin of “Nittany Lion” being due to the last puma killed on the mountain named Nittany (at the end of Nittany Valley) is the Philadephia Inquirer, January 24, 2006. This was repeated in other news dispatches due to three new mountain lion cubs from South Dakota being placed at the Philadelphia Zoo.

    Perhaps the media was creating a new urban myth, or that’s what someone at PSU wanted to see in print, but that’s the “Nittany Lion” story given there.

    Other websites have other stories, of course.

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