Eastern Cougars Finally Declared Extinct

mountain lion

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cougars, also known as pumas and mountain lions, were common in the northeastern U.S. prior to the 1900s
  • The last sightings of eastern cougars in the eastern U.S. occurred in the 1930s, when the large cats were spotted in New Brunswick, Canada and Maine
  • Eastern cougars were listed as endangered on the U.S. endangered species list, but in January 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared them officially extinct
  • There are many subspecies of cougars, including North American cougars, Florida panthers and Western mountain lions; western cougars are believed to be expanding their range but some believe their numbers are still too low fulfill their vital ecological role

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Cougars, also known as pumas and mountain lions, were common in the northeastern U.S. prior to the 1900s. However, one hasn’t been spotted in the area since the 1930s, when the large cats were spotted in New Brunswick, Canada and Maine. Despite this decades-long absence, eastern cougars were listed as endangered on the U.S. endangered species list, but in January 2018 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared them officially extinct.

It’s likely, they stated, that eastern cougars went extinct many decades before the Endangered Species Act was even created. The move comes after a review of more than 100 studies dating back to 1900. FSW has been investigating eastern cougar populations since 2011 and recommended they be removed from the endangered species list in 2015.

Since that time, FSW noted, “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.”1

Cougars Spotted in the Eastern US Are Likely Other Subspecies

There are many subspecies of cougars, including eastern cougars, North American cougars, Florida panthers and Western mountain lions. They’re all genetically the same, but may have slight differences in size or appearance. There have been reports of cougar sightings in the eastern U.S. over the last several decades, but FSW maintains they are not eastern cougars but rather Florida panthers or other cougar subspecies that may stem from cougars in the west. According to FSW:2

“Wild cougar populations in the West have been expanding their range eastward in the last two decades. While individual cougars have been confirmed throughout the Midwest, evidence of wild cougars dispersing farther east is extremely rare. In 2011, a solitary young male cougar traveled about 2,000 miles from South Dakota through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York, and was killed on a Connecticut highway. A cougar of unknown origin was also killed in Kentucky in December 2014.”

In addition, cougars spotted in the east may be captive animals that were released into the wild or escaped. It’s believed that most eastern cougars disappeared in the 1800s, when settlers hunted them out of fear, to protect livestock or to use their fur. Meanwhile, the cougars suffered from deforestation and a reduction in numbers of white-tailed deer, one of their favorite foods, which were also over-hunted at the time.

Cougars were once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western hemisphere, according to FWS, but sadly today they’ve disappeared from about two-thirds of their original range. It’s thought that only western cougars and Florida panthers have large enough populations to maintain breeding populations.3 Some have suggested that cougars should be reintroduced into the eastern states to help with ecological balance.

Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release, “We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy, so we hope eastern and midwestern states will reintroduce them … Cougars would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”4

New Discoveries About ‘Ghost Cats’

Notoriously elusive cougars are sometimes known as ghost cats because they’re rarely seen in the wild. As such, although little data was available about these animals’ social lives, it was long assumed that they were largely solitary except during courtship and mating, territory disputes or raising young. In 2017, however, researchers fitted GPS trackers to 13 cougars and revealed they actually come together quite often.

From April 2012 to March 2015, every cat socialized with other pumas, often coming together to share a meal. What’s more, they engaged in reciprocity, being nearly eight times more likely to share a meal with a puma who had shared a meal with them previously — behavior that’s indicative of social animals.5

In addition, research by Mark Elbroch, Ph.D. of Panthera, a wildcat conservation organization, revealed that cougars are not apex predators in their region, instead being subordinate to other apex predators more than 47 percent of the time.6 Evidence suggests that cougars are subordinate to wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and jaguars, but dominant over coyotes and maned wolves.

Learning more about cougars is important for their conservation. While the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists cougars as animals of least concern, its populations are declining outside of western North America.7 Except for Texas, all western states where cougars reside have some form of protections in place for the animals, although they’re also allowed to be hunted for sport with a permit in 13 states, as well as killed if they threaten humans or livestock.8

Cougars face threats from overkill, habitat loss and fragmentation.9 In many western states, cougars are the last large native carnivores in existence, and protecting, and increasing, their numbers is important for ecological balance, including controlling populations of herbivores like deer and elk. As noted by The Cougar Fund, while populations of cougars still exist in parts of the U.S., their numbers may not be large enough to fulfill their vital ecological role:10

“Without the presence of cougars to check their growth, herbivore numbers increase to the point where they run the risk of consuming all the edible vegetation and preventing regrowth. As these plant species disappear, so do those species dependent on them for food, nesting sites, and other uses.

The loss of each species in turn severs a strand in the intricate food webs that connect species to one another and to their habitat … [R]educing cougar populations below a certain level may disrupt their important ecological role and lead to declines in the health of the natural landscape and biodiversity.”