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Despite rumors, cougars officially extinct in eastern U.S.

January 31, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer (jlevine@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

After nearly a decade of debate - and decades of rumors - the eastern cougar has officially been declared extinct and will be removed from the list of endangered species later this month.

In a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency said that eastern cougars have likely been extinct for decades, and as such there is no need to protect them under the Endangered Species Act.

"Accounts suggest that most eastern cougars disappeared in the 1800s, killed out of fear for human and livestock safety and were victims of massive deforestation and overharvesting of white-tailed deer, the cougar's primary prey," FWS wrote in the release. "The last records of eastern cougars are believed to be from Maine (1938) and New Brunswick, [Canada] (1932).

"The removal of the extinct subspecies from the endangered species list will take effect February 22, 2018. Extinct animals and plants cannot be protected under the Endangered Species Act, which is meant to recover imperiled wildlife and plants and their habitats. Additionally, under law, the eastern cougar listing cannot be used as a method to protect other cougars."

The FWS says there have been some confirmed sightings in the northeast over the decades, but those animals were not eastern cougars. Rather, they were individuals expanding their territories from out west or were of a different subspecies, such as the Florida panther.

"During a 2011 review of the subspecies' status under the ESA, and subsequent 2015 proposal to delist, no states or provinces provided evidence of the existence of an eastern cougar population, nor did analysis of hundreds of reports from the public suggest otherwise," the FWS wrote of its decision. "While many suspected cougar sightings are probably mistakenly identified bobcats or other animals, cougars do occasionally occur in eastern North America, but they are cougars of other subspecies: either Florida panthers, animals dispersing from western populations, or animals that have been released or escaped from captivity."

The most recent confirmed cougar was a male that walked from South Dakota in 2011 and was hit and killed by a car in Connecticut. However, the Adirondacks were once home to the big cats - also known as mountain lions, catamounts, pumas and ghost cats - and traces of their presence are found throughout the Blue Line and across the northeast.

Panther Mountain, which overlooks Piseco Lake near Speculator, is named for the cats, as is Panther Gorge in the High Peaks and Catamount Mountain near Wilmington.

The declaration that cougars are extinct in the northeast will not have an effect on the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC has pages for most of New York's native animals detailing life history, ecology and management actions. But the DEC web page for eastern cougars includes an additional page that is more like an episode of Myth Busters than a lesson on flora and fauna.

"Eastern cougars (mountain lions) do not have a native, self sustaining population in New York State," according to a DEC web page titled "Eastern Cougar Sightings." "They have been absent from this state since the late 1800s; however, there have been a few isolated sightings. Each sighting involved cougars that are not native to New York. A couple of sightings involved captive mountain lions that escaped from licensed facilities in New York State."

The DEC says it gets numerous reports of cougars each year, but that it will only investigate instances where tracks, scat or photographic evidence can be provided. There is a long line of photographs of cougars that the DEC debunks as being from New York, but the agency itself isn't immune to the rumor mill.

"Rumors have been circulating for the past few years that the DEC has released cougars to control deer populations," the DEC says. "Some of these rumors claim that Officer 'Jones' participated in the release, or that people have actually seen cougars with ear tags or neck collars, so they must have been released by the state.

"This is not true. The DEC has never released cougars, despite what you may hear to the contrary."

Despite their apparent long absence from the northeast U.S., the cougar could once be found almost anywhere.

"Once the most widely distributed land mammals in the Western Hemisphere, cougars have been eliminated from about two-thirds of their original range," according to the FWS. "Only western cougars and Florida panthers still live in large enough numbers to maintain breeding populations. Historic accounts and observations of western cougars and Florida panthers provide biologists with information for the cats that once lived east of the Mississippi."

Florida panthers are considered a different subspecies than the eastern cougar, and are still federally protected under the ESA.

"The Service's removal of the eastern cougar from the endangered species list does not affect the status of the Florida panther, a separate cougar subspecies listed as endangered, and all other cougars that may be found in Florida, which are protected under a 'similarity of appearance' designation to aid in protection of the Florida panther," the FWS said in a press release.

To see the DEC's list of cougar rumor photos, go to www.dec.ny.gov/animals/6974.html.

 
 

 

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