Eastern Cougar Extinct in North America

March 5, 2011 – Jen Noelken

Conclusive research determined the elusive eastern cougar is officially extinct.  After researching decades of evidence suggesting the animal may still exist, the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the animal is in fact no longer living.  Researchers believe overpopulation, loss of habitat, global warming and species exploitation is to blame for the loss of the eastern cougars.

Also known as puma, panther, mountain lion or ghost cat, the eastern cougar once roamed from southern Canada to the tip of South America.  Pumas were considered America’s largest cat and known as the “most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere.”  The big cats have been listed on the endangered species list since 1973, but the animals’ existence has long been questioned.  Lead scientist for eastern cougars under the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dr. Mark McCollough thinks the subspecies of eastern cougars may have gone extinct as early as the 1930s when larger numbers of cats were killed.  One story suggests the last surviving puma was shot in Maine in 1938 when states issued bounties on large cats. 

After a formal review of the mountain lion’s status, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list.  According to the endangered species list any known extinct animal will no longer be eligible for protection.  A full proposal for the animal’s removal from the list will be prepared and available for public comment.  The review of the eastern cougar’s condition was initiated as part of the Service’s obligations under the Endangered Species Act.  Dr. McCollough stated the review was the first since 1982 when an eastern cougar recovery plan was initiated. 

The proposal to remove eastern cougars from the endangered species list will not effect protection of the endangered Florida panthers.  At one time Florida panthers ranged throughout the Southeast, now the cats are found in less than 5% of its original habitat.  Currently, only one breeding population exists of 120-160 panthers in southwestern Florida.   

Claims suggesting glimpses of the ghost cat, named so because of rare sightings of the mammal, is believed to be that of the western cougar.  The western cougar still exists in relatively large populations across America; enough remain continue breeding.  Western cougars have never been listed on the endangered species list.  Though western cougars are genetically and physically different than eastern cougars, researchers believe sighting of eastern cougars are a matter of misidentification.  (Some biologists now believe the western and eastern cougars are genetically brethren.)  Officials representing the 21 states where eastern cougars once roamed, concur with evidence stating the cat is indeed extinct.

Some are not so quick to believe pumas are extinct.  The Huffington Post reported avid hunter and freelance writer Ray Sedorchuk claimed he saw an eastern cougar last June in northern Pennsylvania.  Sedorchuk said a puma crossed in front of his truck and stopped.  He went on to say he saw the full reddish-brown body and is certain the animal was not a bobcat.  Other such stories throughout areas of the northeast exist. 

Experts say the loss of top-level predators will have ecological consequences.  Many point to the increase of deer population which led to a decrease in Eastern forest health.  Christopher Spatz, founder of Cougar Rewilding Foundation (formally the Eastern Cougar Foundation) explained white-tail deer are a main prey for cougars.  Without cougars to help thin deer populations, the Eastern ecosystem is collapsing.  Groups such as Cougar Rewilding Foundation would like eastern cougars to be reintroduced, but the wildlife service claim they have no authority to perform such an action.

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