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.