Last week the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tried to put the last nail in the coffin of the eastern cougar by declaring it extinct. The cougar (catamount, panther, puma, painter, mountain lion) will surely not go quietly. This legendary gris-gris of boreal forests, eastern mountains and southeastern swamps will continue to haunt wild places on the ground and wild places in the heart for decades to come.
There also are some scientific taxonomy issues that need to be addressed regarding the eastern cougar. USF&W adheres to taxonomy established in 1946 by S.P. Young and E.A. Goldman that lists at least 15 subspecies of cougar in North America. One of those was Felis concolor couguar – the eastern cougar. Since then, a change in the genus name from Felis to Puma has been widely accepted and the eastern cougar has been referred to as Puma concolor couguar. However, a 2000 study by M. Culver et al., which studied the DNA of 186 individuals from the 15 previously named sub-species, concluded that the entire North American population of cougars was/is one subspecies that they called Puma concolor couguar.
This lack of scientific consensus surely opens a large can of worms and wiggly intrigue. The USF&W considers the Florida panther a distinct subspecies, Puma concolor coryi, and it was listed as endangered in 1967. Six years later the eastern subspecies (according to US F&W), Puma c. couguar was also listed as federally endangered. A lot of money and resources have been expended in Florida to help rescue the Florida panther from extinction. However, if the eastern cougar is declared extinct there can be no “Recovery Plan” and there can be no “Critical Habitat” designation – the two primary avenues USF&W uses to try and reestablish endangered species.
I must admit that I don’t know if there are different established policies and/or guidelines for reestablishing animal populations to their former range depending on whether they are listed as endangered, extinct or extirpated. I know that the eastern subspecies of elk was declared extinct in the late 1800s and that different subspecies have been used to reintroduce the elk in the East. And western subspecies of bald eagles and peregrine falcons have been used to reestablish populations of both species in the East.
It has become apparent to most biologists that there is no self-sustaining population of cougar in the East other than 150 or so animals in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp in Florida. The last documented cougars in North Carolina were reportedly killed in 1886, one near Highlands and one in Craven County. The last reported cougar from the Smokies was dispatched in 1920.
The USF&W recognizes that cougars have occasionally been seen in the East but according to Martin Miller, northeast region chief of endangered species, “…we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”
Reestablishing an apex predator like the cougar is, sadly, not as easy as reestablishing cool birds or potential game animals. Despite the documented ecological and environmental benefits of reintroducing wolves (another apex predator) in Yellowstone National Park there is a rousing clamor out west to de-list the wolf and open season on them once again. It seems that when it comes to apex predators the general public has a love-hate relationship – that is, they love to hate ‘em.