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Thursday, January 25, 2018

The eastern cougar is extinct, but did it ever exist?

Cougar

A North American cougar. Photo by Larry Master.

It’s official: the eastern cougar is extinct. That’s what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decreed this week. And since it doesn’t exist, the eastern cougar was removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species. The odd thing, though, is that the eastern cougar per se may never have existed.

The ruling was not unexpected. It is a reaffirmation of a tentative conclusion that FWS reached a few years ago.

The decision is unlikely to end the debate over whether cougars live in the Adirondacks. There have been dozens of sightings over the years, and many people believe a remnant population of the big cats has always persisted in the region.

In its final report, FWS says most of the sightings in the East were cases of mistaken identity, while some were outright hoaxes. Any genuine sightings were of escaped or released pets or of western cougars dispersing eastward.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation takes the same tack. Its website says cougars have been gone from the state since the late nineteenth century. The only confirmed sighting of a wild cougar in the state occurred near Lake George in 2010. That animal had wandered into the Adirondacks all the way from South Dakota and was later killed by a car in Connecticut.

Many scientists dispute that the eastern cougar is/was a subspecies separate from the western cougar. They argue that all cougars in North America—including the Florida panther—are the same beast. If they are right, the “eastern cougar” never existed and therefore it is extinct only in the sense that unicorns are extinct.

That’s not to say cougars did not live in the East and the Adirondacks. They did, but they were driven out by overhunting, depletion of deer herds, and habitat destruction—except for the remnant population in Florida.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s classification of the eastern cougar as a distinct subspecies is based on research from the 1940s. The agency acknowledges that modern research, including DNA analysis, has cast considerable doubt on the earlier taxonomy. It may revise the cougar’s taxonomy as part of a study of the status of the Florida panther, but for now FWS is sticking with the old classification.

This week’s ruling, by eliminating ambiguity about the status of the eastern cougar, strengthens the argument for restoring cougars to the Adirondacks and the rest of the Northeast, according to Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

In the ruling, the FWS acknowledged studies that have concluded that sufficient habitat exists for the cougar to live in the Adirondacks and the north woods in New England. However, the federal agency says it’s up the states to restore cougars in the East, if that’s what they want to do.

Robinson said he’d like to see Governor Andrew Cuomo and governors from New England to commission a study looking into the feasibility of restoring cougars in the Northeast.

“This is an opportunity for visionary leadership,” he remarked.

Robinson said cougars would act as a check on the region’s deer population. Without an apex predator, he contends, the deer population has grown too big, causing a number of problems, including the overbrowsing of the forest understory, the spread of Lyme disease, and car-deer collisions.

“I’m not suggesting cougars themselves would solve these problems,” he said. “We’re talking about making things better.”

One of the biggest challenges for advocates of cougar restoration would be gaining public support. On occasion, cougars attack pets, livestock, and even people. Robinson, however, said such attacks are rare.

Robinson is an avid hiker who lives in cougar country in New Mexico. Yet over the past twenty years he has caught only two fleeting glimpses of wild cougars.

“They cryptic animals,” he said. “They see us, but typically we don’t see them. For the most part, they don’t want anything to do with us.”

In the past, DEC has said it has no plans to restore the cougar to New York State. The eastern cougar is listed as endangered in the state.

 

Phil Brown

Phil Brown has been editing the Adirondack Explorer since 1999. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important. You can follow his adventures and his musings on the Adirondacks in the Explorer and on this blog.

9 Responses

  1. Mick Finn says:

    That’s great news! What species are they in Newcomb and Cortland? Lots of confirmed sightings. .

  2. Dana Rohleder says:

    I do not believe reintroduction in NE states would be successful in the long run unless all states with significant wild lands participate. Trying to introduce cougar by creating a single “island” of breeders in one state would likely have poor long-term results. But if several islands in different states are created throughout the NE that have reasonable wildlife corridors connecting them, the long term prospects would likely be better and healthier for a stable NE population as a whole.

  3. Jack says:

    Yes, they ARE in Maine. Many have seen them.

  4. Peter Dean says:

    Jack’s statement about cougars in Maine is correct.

    In mid-September 2013 at about 4:00 pm on a Sunday afternoon in bright sunlight my wife and a friend, who were about 30 feet apart, both saw a cougar simultaneously. It crossed about 20 yards in front of them in a field of knee-high to thigh-high grass and blueberry bushes about 50 yards from the sea shore in one of the easternmost counties in Maine. One saw the head and shoulders, the other saw the hindquarters and long tail. There was no mistaking the kind of animal; it was not a dog, coyote, bobcat, domestic cat, raccoon or anything else. The cougar must have been startled when my friend’s husband and I had walked through the field to the shore a couple of minutes earlier.

    My wife and our friend notified the state rangers’ office and, after recounting all the details, were told “that is exceedingly rare but, yes, you saw a cougar”. Two adult and stone-cold sober women standing at different points in the field saw the same animal in bright sunlight close to them. Eastern cougar or Western cougar? We have no idea.

  5. Bill murphy says:

    In the early 1960s a cougar walked in the day light throu our front yard my grand mother and sister sew it my brother and I saw the tracks in the snow you could see where the tail drug in the snow my name is Bill Murphy I still live on the same land thank you

  6. Kathy M. says:

    I saw one in Stockholm about 10 years ago. I first heard it and then I saw it pacing the tree line behind my house. There was no mistaking what kind of cat it was – the tail was long!

  7. Mack says:

    Did it exist? I don’t know that. What I do know is that in my lifetime I have seen both a cougar and a panther here in NYS. In 2015 I watched a (black) panther from my West side Rochester office window. It was less than 120 yards away and unmistakable for anything else. There was one other person who observed it that day. I reported it to the DEC. Given the oddity I contacted the local zoos and animal farms to learn if the had lost one or even knew of anyone with one. They did not. The DEC informed me that there were no local “pet” panthers being held locally and none that had been reported missing. Coincidentally there was a sighting in Oquaga Lake 4 days earlier(I later learned). A man and his son both saw it.
    My first sighting was of a large cat sitting on a rock cut on route 88 just beyond the Schenevus exit. There were other reported cat sightings in this area..something that I learned several years later. I saw it in 1995.
    Anyone that has seen a cougar or who has seen other native cats (bobcat) will understand that to confuse these animals given their unique characteristics. The size of the head, tail and body are unmistakable.

    I have seen one other large cat..dead on the highway between San Jose and Santa Cruz..but we know have them out there.

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Mr. Robinson must’ve done some fairly hasty research, because there many, many accounts of Cougars “stalking”, killing and “consuming” people. Further there is absolutely no “over-population” of deer in the Adirondacks, not to mention the fact that coyotes are doing more than their part to keep those numbers down.

    The cougar is gone…..get over it and go west if you want to see them up close and personal!

  9. Robin DeLoria says:

    Phil…. I have a copy of Harper’s Weekly from February 28, 1885.
    There is a story called Evicted Tenants in it talking about Moose, Elk, Wolverine, Panther and Wolf. I will scan at work and send it to you. No cougar.

    Robin DeLoria – Newcomb NY

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