The eastern cougar, Puma concolor couguar, is considered to be a subspecies of the puma or mountain lion. Once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, cougars have been eliminated in most of their native habitat. Only western cougars still live in large enough numbers to maintain breeding populations, living on wild lands in the western United States and Canada.
Although the eastern cougar has been on the federal endangered species list since 1973, its existence has long been questioned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a formal review of the available information and, in a report issued Wednesday, concludes the eastern cougar is extinct and recommends the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list.
Eastern cougar (Photo by Lavonda Walton courtesy USFWS)
"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. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar."
Reports of cougars observed in the wild examined during the review process described cougars of other subspecies, often South American subspecies, that had been held in captivity and had escaped or been released to the wild, as well as wild cougars of the western United States subspecies that had migrated eastward to the Midwest.
During the review, the Service received 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies; conducted an extensive review of U.S. and Canadian scientific literature; and requested information from the 21 states within the historical range of the subspecies.
No states expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population. Dr. Mark McCollough, the Service's lead scientist for the eastern cougar, says the subspecies has likely been extinct since the 1930s.
Miller said the Service will prepare a proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, since extinct animals are not eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal will be made available for public comment.
"Official confirmation of the eastern cougar's extinction is a belated warning that our ecosystems are out of whack, as many a backyard gardener finds out when confronted with damage by voracious deer," said Michael Robinson, with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
"But we still have a chance to recover the Florida panther by saving habitat in its current range and reintroducing the animal to its historic range," said Robinson. "If we can do that, we'll help restore nature's balance at the same time."
The Service's decision to declare the eastern cougar extinct does not affect the status of the Florida panther, another wild cat subspecies listed as endangered.
Though the Florida panther once ranged throughout the Southeast, it now exists in less than five percent of its historic habitat and in only one breeding population of 120 to 160 animals in southwestern Florida.
On February 10, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to reintroduce Florida panthers to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding lands in south Georgia and north Florida.
Reintroduction is called for in the 2008 Florida panther recovery plan, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has not carried it out.
Three studies identified the Okefenokee refuge and surrounding lands as suitable for reintroduction. One study was based on GIS computer mapping and the other two involved Texas pumas that were introduced into the wild as surrogates for Florida panthers, then removed after years of monitoring.
Robinson says reintroduction of Florida panthers would help curb feral hog consumption of sensitive native plants. The hogs are not native and they eat the saplings of longleaf pines that were planted on the refuge to help restore a forest that has been reduced to three percent of its original range.
Panthers prey on hogs, and would therefore help to restore a forest ecosystem upon which many other endangered animals rely.
"It is still not too late for the Florida panther," said Robinson. "To save the panther in its existing range, the Interior Department must designate critical habitat. To recover the panther and bring back the vanishing longleaf pine forest where panthers used to roam, reintroduction to the greater Okefenokee ecosystem is essential."
Click here for more information about eastern cougars, including frequently asked questions and cougar sightings.
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