WASHINGTON (CN) – In a proposed rule published Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes removing the eastern cougar from the Endangered Species List because it is likely extinct. Extinct species are not protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because the purpose of the act is to help imperiled species recover, the agency said.
The cougar is also called a puma, mountain lion, wildcat, catamount or panther. One subspecies is found throughout the west, where cougar populations have expanded even into the Midwest, and a different subspecies is found in Florida. Both of those subspecies are considered to be different from the eastern cougar, which was listed as endangered in 1973.
“Accounts suggest that most eastern cougars disappeared in the 1800s as European immigrants killed cougars to protect themselves and their livestock, as forests were harvested, and as white-tailed deer, the cougar’s primary prey, nearly went extinct in eastern North America. The last records of eastern cougars are believed to be in Maine (1938) and New Brunswick (1932),” the agency said in its announcement of the proposed rule.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group that is a frequent litigant on behalf of endangered species, the eastern cougar was extinct long before it was listed under the ESA, which has been largely successful in saving species from extinction.
“The extinction of the eastern puma and other apex carnivores such as wolves and lynx upended the ecology of the original colonies and beyond,” CBD’s Michael Robinson was quoted as saying in the group’s response to the proposal. “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 the bottom of the food chain.”
Fish and Wildlife finished its formal five-year review of the species in 2011, which included consideration of more than a hundred reports dating back to 1900, and resulted in the determination that the subspecies was likely extinct.
“We recognize that people have seen cougars in the wild in the eastern U.S.,” Fish and Wildlife’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller said. “Those cougars are not of the eastern cougar subspecies.” The agency concluded those sightings were of Florida panthers, animals from western populations, or animals that have escaped from captivity.
“In 2011, a solitary young male cougar traveled about 2,000 miles from South Dakota through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York, and was killed on a Connecticut highway,” the agency said.
The cougar is one of the most widely distributed and adaptable land mammals in the Americas, surviving in swamps and everglades as well as temperate forests. There is considerable debate regarding the taxonomic classification of cougar subspecies, and whether the scientific community should use genetics as the determining factor. The agency maintains that “until a comprehensive evaluation of the subspecies status of North American pumas, including genetic, morphometric, and behavioral analyses, is completed, the best available information continues to support the assignment of the eastern taxon to Puma concolor couguar as distinct from other North American subspecies,” according to the proposed action.
“This is a somber moment to think about what the land under our feet used to be like, and what roamed here. It should also be a clarion call to recover pumas and all of our apex predators to sustainable levels to help rebalance a world that is out of kilter,” CBD’s Robinson said.
Comments are due by Aug. 17, 2015, and written requests for public hearings must be received by August 3, 2015. Informational webinars will be scheduled upon request, the agency said.
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