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Giving up on the “ghost cat”: Eastern cougar subspecies declared extinct

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Last verifiably seen in 1938, when the final “ghost cat” was shot and killed in Maine, the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) has now been declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). But that may not stop many people from believing that it still exists.

This subspecies of cougar (also known as the mountain lion, puma, catamount and panther, among other names) lived in the northeast U.S. and neighboring Canada. The big cats disappeared after their primary prey, white-tailed deer, were themselves hunted into near-extinction in New England. “White-tailed deer were nearly eradicated from the eastern U.S. in the late 1800s,” says Mark McCollough, FWS’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar. “The few cougars that survived [after that] would have had very little food to support them.” (Cougars were also extensively hunted and even had bounties on their heads as threats to livestock.)

McCollough says the FWS’s recently published review (pdf) of the eastern cougar (mandated every five years for all species protected under the Endangered Species Act) examined all evidence that would have led scientists to conclude that the cat still existed in the northeast. After finding no tracks, bodies, den sites or photographs, “we came to the conclusion that the eastern cougar is likely extinct, probably since the 1930s,” he says.

That doesn’t mean, however, that cougars aren’t still seen in the northeast. Cougar sightings are commonly reported in New England—50 a year in Vermont alone—but wildlife officials say that most of them are actually bobcat, lynx and even large housecats.

Still, some of these sightings really are cougars: “Cougars do turn up,” McCollough says, but in the 110 confirmed instances of a cougar being seen in the eastern U.S. or Canada, all were traced to escaped animals that were brought to the northeast from other parts of the country, or even South America. “Some authors believe that as many as 1,000 cougars are in captivity in the U.S. and Canada,” McCollough says. Although FWS could not verify that number, finding real counts of captive cougars is hard, because many are held illegally without permits, he says.

Meanwhile, cougars from other parts of the country have slowly been migrating east, much as coyotes have spread throughout the country in recent decades, although McCollough said it seemed unlikely that any had gotten anywhere close to New England yet.

The declaration of the eastern cougar’s extinction raised hackles from numerous people and organizations, including Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, which said there is conclusive evidence—including paw prints and feces—that cougars do still live in the Canadian state. The last confirmed eastern cougar in Ontario was killed in 1884, and none have been photographed since then. (The ministry does acknowledge the possibility that the cougars might not be native to the area.)

John Lutz, direct of the Eastern Puma Research Network, a group dedicated to finding evidence of the cougar’s continued existence, told Pennsylvania’s Times Leader that they have collected 11,000 reports of cougar sightings since 1965. “There will be more reports to prove [the FWS] wrong,” he said.

There’s one other bit of debate going on that’s important to note: many scientists say that the eastern cougar subspecies does not exist, not because it went extinct, but because it never really existed at all. A study published in the Journal of Heredity in 2000 revealed that previously recognized North American cougar/puma/panther/mountain lion subspecies may actually all be the same species.

The FWS now plans to seek the removal of the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, because extinct animals can no longer be protected. The move would not affect the Florida panther, which remains, for now, listed as its own subspecies.

 

Photo: Biologist Bruce Wright with the mounted specimen of what is believed to be the last eastern cougar, which was trapped in Maine in 1938. Courtesy U.S . Fish and Wildlife Service.





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  1. 1. robert schmidt 11:12 pm 03/9/2011

    @John Platt, "do still live in the Canadian state" Terrible reporting for a science magazine. Canada does not have states, it has provinces.

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  2. 2. easternpumaresearcher 3:57 pm 03/10/2011

    As Director of the Eastern Puma Research Network, (www.eprn.homestead.com), I’d like to add a few words and questions to the recent declaration by USF&WS on "native eastern cougars" being extinct since 1938.
    Speaking logically, NO agency can make such claims of a wildlife species being ‘extinct’, if documented reports including physical/photographic evidence continues to be confirmed/logged every year. Since beginning field studies in 1965 in the Mid-Atlantic States, not only local citizens but trained wildlife observers have found evidence of CONFIRMED pumas in 7 eastern states.
    Track evidence of these reports date back to the early 1900s, decades before the 1938 timeline set by the USF&WS.
    30 years ago, white-tail deer herds began their resurgence back into the lush eastern forests, native free-roaming cougars were right on their heels.
    When seeing 1 cougar, most people think they are all the same…but is NOT the case to well-trained observers seeking data on a specific wildlife species.
    Professionally trained individuals can distinguish differences between a captive cougar and one that has roamed freely all its life.
    When a large feline predator moves into any given area, all the normal prey remove themselves to other areas, instintively knowing they could easily become the predator’s 1st victim.
    When in captivity, 95% of pet cougar owners file down or completely remove the front claws and majority of their teeth, to prevent the cougar for having them for ‘dinner’. Such actions, make the pet cougar fully dependent on the human for survival and NOT capable of chasing down whitetail deer.
    As for the likelihood of western cougars travelling east from the Rockies, such action is possible, but this writer feels UNNECESSARY, since small bands of NATIVE cougars have been well entrenched in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for centuries. Just ask any Cherokee Indian living there and a USFS memo released 35 years ago.
    In past years, this writer had opportunity of reading USF&WS memos claiming agency wanted to place a few Texas cougars in 2 North Carolina National Forests. Did such projects ever occur or was it a ‘covert activity?
    Why did the USF&WS omit Florida’s Panther and Michigan Cougars from their directive??
    Are they politically hot-potatos?
    The Florida cougar was long considered the same subspecies as the native eastern cougar, but Florida panthers (cougar) attract thousands of visitors every year, making the feds NOT wanting to mess with them.
    Contact us at http://www.eprn.homestead.com

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  3. 3. oldfartfox 10:08 pm 03/10/2011

    I don’t know if they are Eastern, Floridian, or Lalapaloozian, but there appear to be at least a few big cats hanging around the swamps down here in central Mississippi.

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  4. 4. easternpumaresearcher 12:20 am 03/11/2011

    Pumas/cougars/black panthers have long been identified for hanging out in and around swamps, where multiple smaller wildlife species spend much of their time, feeding on yet smaller animal species. The cycle appears to be continuing.
    The late Texas Historian Bill Block Sr, had thousands of people response to his website, from across the SE states, all reporting big cats in swamps of SE Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama & Georgia.
    Would like to hear more data from you on the big cats in the deltas, swamps & bayous of Mississippi & other Southern states. More Eastern Puma Research Network data can now be found on Facebook, come join us.

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  5. 5. wendellcoleman 2:01 am 03/15/2011

    I don’t know if Puma concolor couguar is extinct or not, but I do know that in the summer of 1960, I saw a free ranging (wild?) Puma concolor in Londonderry Vermont. That is for certain, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It could have been an escapee of another subspecies or Puma concolor couguar, but it was a "Couguar", "Mountain Lion", "Puma", etc. of some subsqecies.

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  6. 6. cwg.sa.smith@gmail.com 1:02 pm 01/10/2012

    I was raised in a very scientific family. Empirical evidence was sought to explain everything, even if the tiger really did eat my homework. Our cat was named tiger so technically… When grew up I wrote books on outdoor rec. and natural history in the Berkshires of western MA.

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