Eastern cougars (Puma concolor couguar) were officially declared extinct last week, on January 22, 2018. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has now removed them from the Endangered Species list, where they had been placed in 1973.
Until the late 1800s, cougars—also known as catamounts, mountain lions, panthers or pumas—were common throughout the Eastern United States. But as forests and prey disappeared and European settlers killed them for their fur and to protect livestock, the big cat populations diminished.
Although Eastern cougars may look slightly different than Western mountain lions and Florida panthers—a big cat considered to be one of the world’s most endangered mammals and now found only in the Everglades—in fact, the differently named felines have proven to be genetically the same.
The last confirmed sighting of an Eastern cougar was in 1938, when it is believed that hunters in Maine shot the last one. In 2011, the USFWS opened an extensive review into the status of the Eastern cougar; and in 2015, federal wildlife biologists concluded that there was no evidence of a viable population left. Thus, they no longer warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, and their delisting became final last week.
Usually, the loss of a wild animal is devastating news. This time, however, some are saying it could actually be a good thing.
Room for reintroduction
Some say that because of the removal of the Eastern cougar from the Endangered Species List, the way is now clear for states, such as New York where the Adirondack Mountains contain prime cougar habitat, to reestablish a mountain lion presence with animals imported from burgeoning populations in the West.
And it seems that the Western cougars themselves have decided that the East is a good place to move. Since about 1990, researchers have been tracking small pockets of cougar populations east of their current established range, which ends at the Rocky Mountains. Western cougars have been popping up in the Midwest, and some are confirmed to have occasionally ventured as far East as Connecticut, with reported sightings even in Maine.
In 2011, a young male cougar was killed by a car in Connecticut. Scientists determined that he’d begun his journey 1,500 miles away in South Dakota. Given how elusive the animals are—sightings are rare even in places with relatively large population numbers—it’s likely that other cougars have made similar journeys.
It’s a promising start for a species trying to reinhabit its once continent-wide territory. Some even speculate that the Midwest will be home to a stable cougar population within the next 25 years.
And while no current reintroduction plans are in place (except for one in Florida, where cougars from Texas have been bred to boost the population numbers and diversity of Florida panthers), the complications of introducing a species where it’s listed as endangered have been removed.
Perspective on our place
While cougars, along with other large predators such as bears and wolves, have been persistently persecuted and hunted for perceived threats to livestock, people and pets, in recent years we’ve come to better understand the role that these animals play in wider ecosystems and the benefits they confer. Similar to the way wolves have helped restore balance in Yellowstone National Park, cougars could help protect biodiversity in the Northeast.
Large carnivores, such as cougars, curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, that threaten human health. They also save lives by reducing deer-car collisions. It’s estimated that if the cats were reintroduced across the U.S., over the course of the next 30 years such crashes would be slashed by 22 percent, preventing more than 21,000 accidents and saving 155 human lives with 21,400 fewer injuries. It would spare the economy $2.3 billion.
I think, though, that making sure that cougars once again roam across the United States is worth more than just the environmental and economic advantages that will accrue. Glimpsing the wild, whether it’s in the guise of a cougar, grizzly bear or wolf, pulls us back into our wild hearts and origins, and makes us realize that the world is so much fuller and richer when it’s not entirely dominated by us.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,