Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service can remove species from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife if protections are no longer needed due to recovery, original data error, or extinction. Removal from the list can only be done by issuing a final rule, which is scheduled for publication Tuesday.
Cougars are commonly known as mountain lions, pumas or panthers, and in some regions go by more fanciful names like ghost cat, painter, catamount, or deer lion. Cougars are “the most widely distributed native wild land mammal in the New World,” but the eastern cougar population was decimated due to “persecution stemming from fear of large predators, competition for game species, and occasional depredation of livestock,” the agency said.
“We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy, so we hope Eastern and Midwestern states will reintroduce them,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in response to the final rule. “Cougars would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”
Robinson’s group frequently petitions Fish and Wildlife and initiates legal action on behalf of imperiled species.
“Our decision to remove the eastern puma from the list due to extinction is based on information and analysis showing that the eastern puma likely has been extinct for many decades, long before its listing under the act. Eastern puma sightings have not been confirmed since the 1930s, and genetic and forensic testing has confirmed that recent validated puma sightings in the East, outside Florida, were animals released or escaped from captivity or wild pumas dispersing eastward from western North America,” the agency said in its delisting rule.
The eastern cougar was listed under the act in 1973. Based on a five-year status review completed in 2011, the agency proposed to delist the cats in June 2015, and reopened the comment period on the proposal last year. Based on comments and information received in response to the delisting proposal, the agency made some changes to the final rule.
The major issue that surfaced is the “ambiguous situation” regarding the conflicting taxonomic designations for cougars in North America. The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, the federal Interagency Taxonomic Information System, the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature favor listing all the previously accepted subspecies as being in fact just one subspecies of cougar.
The Florida panther, recently listed under the act, may be impacted by a taxonomic change, and the agency has indicated that in the status assessment it’s currently doing for the Florida panther the question of the correct taxonomy for North American cougars will be carefully examined.
For now, the agency is choosing to stick with the existing taxonomic listing for the eastern cougar to “forestall any speculation that we have discovered evidence of the existence of eastern pumas, a perception that could be triggered by changing the basis for delisting from extinction to original data error,” the agency said.
“While the best available scientific information provides some evidence that North American pumas constitute a single subspecies, taxonomic revision awaits full resolution and does not constitute the most fundamental basis for delisting the eastern puma. The best available information also indicates that the entity described as the eastern puma was extirpated throughout its historical range long before its listing, and that this is a primary and sufficiently proven basis for delisting.”
As deer herds continue to expand in the east, the question of whether cougars should be reintroduced into that historical range or whether cougars will spread into that area naturally from elsewhere remains. Due to the government shutdown, the service was unable to respond to a request for comments.
“This somber moment should push [New York] Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo and other state leaders to bring back pumas to help rebalance a world out of kilter,” said Robinson. “Eastern states should move quickly to reintroduce these magnificent animals, which play such a critical role in controlling deer herds.”
The final delisting rule for the eastern cougar is scheduled to publish Jan. 23, and will be effective 30 days after publication