While concluding the probable disappearance of the eastern cougar -- which once lived in every eastern state in habitats ranging from mountains to coastal marshes -- the federal agency acknowledged that cougars have been sighted throughout the region for decades.
“We recognize that people have seen cougars in the wild in the eastern U.S.,” said Martin Miller, chief of endangered species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeastern Region. “Those cougars are not of the eastern cougar subspecies.”
The federal agency’s research review concluded that the cougars that occasionally occur in eastern North America are former captive animals that have escaped or been released in the wild, Florida panthers (a separate endangered subspecies with a wild population of fewer than 200) roaming outside their normal range, or dispersing members of a growing population of western cougars.
Since the 1990s, wild cougar populations in the western U.S. have extended their range into the Midwest and, on rare occasions, even farther from their home range.
In 2011, the farthest-ranging western cougar on record traveled nearly 2,000 miles eastward from its home in South Dakota to the Greenwich, Connecticut, area, where it was struck and killed by a car. DNA tests showed that the young male was native to the Black Hills, and DNA tests of scat from a cougar seen traveling through Minnesota and Wisconsin in the months before the Connecticut fatality were an exact match for the far-roaming South Dakota cougar.
Last December, a Kentucky conservation officer shot and killed a cougar of unknown origin that had been treed on a farm near the town of Paris.
The review that led to the recommended de-listing of the eastern cougar involved data wildlife researchers from 21 states and eastern Canada provinces, plus hundreds of reports from the public. “No states or provinces provided evidence of the existence of an eastern cougar population,”the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded.
“That would agree with our records,” said Chris Ryan of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Section. “We often have reports of people seeing cougars, but we’ve never been able to confirm those sightings. There could have been some animals brought in illegally that may have escaped or been set free, but we have yet to have a vehicle collision death or have one get treed by hounds used by our bear hunters or raccoon hunters.”
There have been numerous West Virginia sightings of cougars -- also known as pumas, panthers and mountain lions -- over the years, including two cougars that were captured in Pocahontas County in 1976, but turned out to be western cougars that had been driven to West Virginia and released.
Eastern cougars began disappearing in the 1880s, as settlers killed the predators to protect themselves and their livestock, while widespread logging destroyed cougar habitat and white-tailed deer populations approached extinction, adding to the mountain lion’s demise.
In West Virginia, bounties were paid for dead cougars in a number of counties, including Randolph, where rewards were paid on 73 mountain lions between 1852 and 1859, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The last eastern cougar killed in West Virginia is believed to be an individual shot along Tea Creek in Pocahontas County in 1887.
The last known eastern cougar to be killed in the eastern U.S. was a lion trapped in Somerset County, Maine, in 1938.
The eastern cougar subspecies was listed as endangered in 1973. Extinct animals and plants can’t be protected under the Endangered Species Act as a method to safeguard other related species.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity, in response to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement, said that wildlife managers should consider the eventual reintroduction of cougars into public lands in the east to resume their former role of controlling deer populations.
“The extinction of the eastern puma and other apex carnivores such and wolves and lynx upended the ecology of the original colonies and beyond,” said Michael Robinson of the CBD. “Over a century after deer went extinct in the Northeast, they have returned with a voracious vengeance, and botanists lament the disappearance of formerly abundant plant communities. We have forests that have lost the top and bottom of the food chain.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.