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.