USFWS moves to name eastern cougar officially extinct after 70 years

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Bruce Wright, New Brunswick wildlife biologist and author, with what is believed to be the last eastern puma. Rosarie Morin of St. Zacharie, Quebec in Somerset County, Maine trapped the puma in 1938. Mounted specimen resides in the New Brunswick Museum in St. John, New Brunswick. Credit: Courtesy of Northeastern Wildlife Station via USFWS

Your chances of bumping into a rarely seen big cat on the federal government's endangered species list could drop from slim to none this fall if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service gets its way.

A domestic puma, specifically the Eastern Cougar subspecies (Puma concolor couguar), not seen since 1938, was added to the list in 1973 along with a number of other rare animals just in case. The agency even paid for an expansive 23-page recovery plan for the animal in 1981.

However, after an exhaustive review of sightings and information available, the USFWS is moving to delist the animal and stamp it extinct.

Designated its own species, different from either the Florida Panther (which is confirmed to exist and is also on the endangered list) and the Western Cougar (whose numbers and range are expanding), the Eastern Cougar was only identified as being separate in 1946 by a pair of biologists, S.P. Young and E.A. Goldman, who determined through examination of 8 specimens found in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York that the animal was distinctly, well, distinct.

Range of the Eastern Cougar (F.c. couguar) as noted by the USFWS in 1982. The 8 dots in the Northeast are where the known specimins used in the 1946 study were collected from.

Ironically, by that time, it likely didn't matter much as no confirmed examples have popped up in the wild. Although there are hundreds of spotting of cougars east of the Mississippi each year reported to authorities, USFWS cautions that, after vetting, none of these is the elusive ghost cat in question.

“We recognize that people have seen cougars in the wild in the eastern U.S.,” said Martin Miller, the Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species in a statement. “Those cougars are not of the eastern cougar subspecies.”

As detailed by the agency, investigations into cougar sightings in the eastern U.S. arrive at the conclusion that as many as 90 percent on average are misidentified such as inexperienced individuals seeking a large house cat, dog, deer, bobcat or fisher in the distance and reporting it as a cougar. Added to this are a number of outright bigfoot-style hoaxes.

In the fraction that are valid cougar sightings, it typically ends up being a former pet cougar (nearly 1,000 are believed to be in private hands) that was illegally released or escaped confinement, or a wandering male mountain lion from the west.

In one case reported in 2011, a young male mountain lion known to belong to a population in South Dakota walked across the Midwest some 2,000 miles in search of food and available females until being killed by a car on a Connecticut highway.

Further, USFWS contacted 21 state and provincial conservation agencies to see if they had any information to add over a two-year period, to include pictures, hair tufts, scat, or tracks without success. Finally, the agency since 2007 has asked the same from the public at large with similar results.

At the time the agency noted the remarks of naturalist John James Audubon wrote in 1846 that, "the animal, which has excited so much terror in the minds of the ignorant and timid, has been nearly exterminated in all our Atlantic states, and we do not recollect a single well authenticated instance where any hunter's life fell sacrifice to a Cougar hunt."

Fast forward 169 years and the feds are inclined to agree. Nevertheless, the agency is still accepting comments on the proposed delisting through August 17, 2015.

Following the end of the commenting period, USFWS will ask three independent scientific reviewers to look over the body of evidence and make a final determination, which will be published in the Federal Register, on if the cougar should continue to be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

If the delisting is approved, the Florida Panther, with at least 240 known individuals, will be the only recognized native big cat in the eastern United States.

It would be the 10th animal dropped from the list due to extinction.