Seen a cougar? Tell about it . . .

Sat, 03/10/2007 - 3:19pm
By: The Citizen

Comments sought on eastern cougar
Catamount, puma, painter, panther, mountain lion are just some of the names given to a large but elusive will-o’-the-wisp cat that once haunted . . . or perhaps still haunts . . . the forests of the eastern United States and Canada. 
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning a review of scientific and commercial information to determine the status of the endangered eastern cougar, the first review the Service has done since publishing a recovery plan in 1982. The Service placed the eastern cougar on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 1973.
“We will compile and evaluate scientific evidence to help us understand the status of the eastern cougar and to determine what future actions the Service should take,” said Martin Miller, chief of endangered species for the Service’s Northeast Region.
As part of the review, the Service is seeking information on the status of the eastern cougar in the 21 states -- from Maine to South Carolina and westward from Michigan to Tennessee -- where the Endangered Species Act protects it. Lacking definitive evidence of the species’ existence, the Service has presumed the eastern cougar to be extinct. It is improbable that a small cougar population persisted in the eastern states for over a century. Most of the confirmed cougar records since 1950 (animals killed, good quality photos/videos, genetic evidence) are known to be escapes of captive origin. There may be thousands of captive cougars in the eastern United States.
“An important part of the Service’s review will be to compile the best available scientific evidence and objectively assess whether the eastern cougar is truly extinct,” said Mark McCollough, endangered species biologist in the Service’s Northeast Region. McCollough and other Service staff will prepare the status review. 
Anyone wishing to submit information regarding the eastern cougar may do so by writing to:
 Eastern Cougar
Northeast Regional Office
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
300 Westgate Center Drive
Hadley, MA 01035
 or by email to Information must be received by March 30, 2007, for the status review, although the Service will continue to accept new information about eastern cougars at any time.
The Service announced the eastern cougar status review in the “Federal Register” on Jan. 29. To assist with the review, the Service contacted state fish and wildlife agencies in states and Canadian provinces where the cougar is thought to have lived and requested information related to cougar status, protection, threats, laws about captivity, and habitats where cougars could persist. 
The Endangered Species Act requires a review every five years of all protected species. However, limited resources and higher priorities have postponed the review for the Eastern cougar until now.
For additional information on the eastern cougar, see Information on the Service’s endangered species program may be found at
The eastern cougar was one of the first wildlife casualties of European settlement. It ranged throughout the East as a top predator in an ecosystem that supported abundant white-tailed deer, woodland bison and the eastern elk. Early settlers quickly exterminated the bison and elk and nearly eliminated the deer, the primary prey of cougars. Furthermore, they systematically shot, trapped and poisoned cougars because the big cats competed with settlers for large game animals, and because they occasionally killed livestock. 
Agriculture, settlements and cities transformed the eastern forest. By 1846, naturalist John James Audubon wrote, “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.” 
Cougar reports had begun fading by 1891 when Frederick True wrote that the big cats had been eradicated from nearly all eastern states and as far west as Indiana and “it is improbable that even stragglers could be found at the present day.” 
But did eastern cougars go extinct? Reports of this ghost cat continued through the 20th century. Florida panthers, a cougar population protected as an endangered subspecies, are the focus of a Service recovery effort. Rumors abound that small populations of cougars may have persisted in the Great Smoky Mountains, the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, the Adirondacks, Maine or eastern Canada. 
 The eastern cougar subspecies Puma concolor couguar was described in 1946 on scant evidence from measurements taken from museum specimens of just eight cougar skulls from three Mid-Atlantic States. The historical range of the eastern cougar was a guess, but stands to this day. Based on this evidence, the eastern cougar was one of the first species added to the federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. 
Cougar enthusiasts believe the big cat has returned in the East or never was completely eradicated. Verified cougar reports include a road-killed kitten in Kentucky in 1997, a cougar killed and another captured in West Virginia in 1976, scat from Massachusetts in 1997, and others. Videos, photos and other evidence of cougars exist. The public, including wildlife biologists, have reported thousands of unverified sightings. 
Wildlife biologists believe the cats sighted could be cougars once held as pets and then released, or they could be transient animals from the West or Canada. It is improbable that a remnant, reproducing population of eastern cougars persisted for the last 100 years. However, the status review will examine each of these possibilities.
The validity of the eastern cougar as a subspecies is in question. Recent research by Melanie Culver, Ph.D., at the University of Maryland indicates that the eastern cougar is not genetically unique and suggests that all North American cougars could be categorized as a single subspecies. These new analyses will be considered in the Service’s status review.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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