The Eastern Cougar, a subspecies of one of North America’s largest cats, was declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on March 2, 2011, after a very long and protracted review process. The USFWS gathered information on the elusive cat subspecies from both scientists and government authorities in the 21 states where the eastern cougar, also known as the eastern puma once lived. The private Eastern Cougar Foundation spent a decade looking for evidence and after finding none, changed its name to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.
The historic distribution of the cougar was across lower Canada in the north, all the way to Patagonia, South America. The highly adaptable big cat was the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. It could be found in tidal marshes, deserts, mountainous terrain and deciduous, coniferous and tropical forests. But the expanding human population reduced their distribution and they did not adapt well to areas with conflicting land uses.
The eastern cougar once roamed from Maine to South Carolina and as far west as Michigan and Tennessee. They were agile for such a big cat. The cougars had long slender bodies and small heads with short rounded ears. They sported a beautiful tawny coat, usually brownish red or grayish brown, that would be more tan in the summer months and more gray in the winter. Their muzzle, chin, and underbelly were a beautiful creamy white. They had a distinctive black tip on their tails and black coloring behind the ears, and at the base of their whiskers.
The eastern cougar was a solitary and territorial hunter whose job was to thin the deer herd through direct predation. The big cat was a “natural shepherd” forcing deer to be more vigilant and stop grazing like cattle so that the forest would have a chance to regenerate. There are no other species available to take over the eastern cougar’s position as a top-level predator. This leaves behind ecological consequences, including a population explosion of white -tailed deer and the Eastern forests in declining health.
The USFWS decision to declare the eastern cougar extinct does not affect the current status of the Florida Panther, another wild cat subspecies that is endangered. The Florida panther once roamed throughout the southeastern United States but now exists in less than 5% of its historic range. There are only an estimated 120-160 cats remaining in southwestern Florida.
Preparations are being made to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, since extinct animals are not eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The eastern cougar was considered a distinct subspecies, although it is now believed they had the same genetics as their western relatives. It is highly unlikely that there will be any attempt to reintroduce cougars to the eastern states, the required habitat is just not available .
The announcement of the extinction was made quietly and the cougar was put to rest without a ceremony. And that is fitting I suppose for a cat so elusive it was given the nickname “ghost cat”. Researchers believe the subspecies has been extinct since the 1930′s and was listed as an endangered species in 1973.
Even though the extinction conclusion was not unexpected, the official declaration of extinction, the acknowledgment that the big cat is gone forever still hurts.