After a study of the eastern cougar, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the animal is extinct.
"We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar," the service’s Northeast region chief of endangered species, Martin Miller, said in a news release. "However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar."
The study, released Wednesday, was performed because the Endangered Species Act requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a review of each protected species every five years to ensure the accuracy of its classification.
Federal biologists will now start planning a proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list. The proposal will be published in the federal register, and a public comment period will follow. After reviewing the comments, a final determination will be made.
In this most recent review of the eastern cougar’s status, the Fish and Wildlife Service received 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies, conducted an extensive review of U.S. and Canadian scientific literature, and requested information from the 21 states within the historical range of the subspecies.
No state expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. According to Mark McCollough, the FWS’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar, the subspecies of eastern cougar has likely been extinct since the 1930s. In an audio recording on the FWS website, he said the last known evidence tied to an existing eastern cougar was in 1938 in Maine.
In New York, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has maintained for years that there is no mountain lion population there, despite reports of the contrary in places like the Adirondacks.
"We receive about a half-dozen reports each year of mountain lion sightings in Region 5," DEC Region 5 spokesman Dave Winchell wrote to the Enterprise in an e-mail. "Over the years a few of the reports were clearly reliable or otherwise (thought) to have some validity. However, DEC Region 5 Wildlife staff continue to maintain the position that a viable population of mountain lions does not exist in New York State and that any mountain lions actually (sighted) are escaped or released captive mountain lion."
The DEC website lists the animal as being "extirpated," or regionally wiped out. Cougar populations declined throughout the Northeast after the animals were hunted, both for killing livestock and because they were generally feared.
Despite the fact that many scientists believe the easter cougar was extirpated in the 1800s and early 1900s, it was only listed on the endangered species list in 1973.
"There were many groups formed that were advocating for cougars, looking for cougars, believed cougars still existed, and so I think the subspecies was given the benefit of the doubt that a critically low population may still exist and that’s why it was listed," the FWS’ McCollough said.
The eastern cougar range once extended from Maine south to Georgia, west into eastern Missouri and eastern Illinois, and north to Michigan and Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada. A separate species of cougar does exist in Florida and was not part of this study.
What is still unclear is whether cougars will be a part of the northeastern ecology in the future. Some biologists believe the animal is headed here from the west.
"Several prominent cougar biologists have predicted that cougars will return to parts of their historic range in the east," McCollough said. "Whether they will return and whether people will let them return is a totally different question."
Vermont biologist Susan Morse, who has studied cougars in the western U.S. and Florida, told the Enterprise in October they will one day make their way to the Northeast.
"They are in our future," Morse said. "They are making a steady eastward spread. There are occasional animals that have reached our region, somehow, some way, undoubtedly. Some may be released pets, but I firmly believe some are legitimate transients that have made it here."
I don’t believe we have a breeding population yet, but that’s around the corner."