The Eastern puma (Puma concolor couguar), a likely subspecies of the puma (also known as the cougar, mountain lion and panther), has been officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, ending its 38 year long listing on the Endangered Species Act.
This elusive predator once prowled the wilderness in 21 states, but its existence has not been confirmed since the 1930s, although sightings have been consistently reported up to the present day. After a five year review, federal officials concluded there are no breeding populations of the Eastern puma left.
The Eastern puma was once widely dispersed across the eastern U.S. However, it was all but wiped out in the early 20th century by excessive hunting, both of the puma and of its main prey species, the white-tailed deer.
Federal researchers had been studying whether the Eastern puma was present in the 21 states where it historically occurred, and said there were 108 sightings of this big cat between 1900 and 2010.
However, according to biologist Mark McCollough, who headed the review, 90% of alleged puma sightings in the east are the result of misidentifications of other species. The few authentic sightings of pumas in the eastern U.S. have involved animals that either escaped or were released from captivity, or matched other subspecies, including South American forms and wild pumas that had migrated east from the Western states.
The findings will result in the removal of the eastern puma from its listing under the Endangered Species Act. However, this move will not affect the endangered status of other puma subspecies, including the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi), which is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. This subspecies now exists in less than 5% of its former range, with a breeding population of only 120 to 160 animals in south-western Florida.
Although the wildlife service said that it has no authority to reintroduce pumas to the eastern U.S, the Cougar Rewilding Foundation is aiming to establish puma populations east of the Rocky Mountains through the responsible management of puma habitat and public education programmes.
They would like pumas, as well as wolves, to be reintroduced to the eastern U.S., as they would help control herbivore populations which have exploded in the absence of natural predators.
“Our ecosystems are collapsing up and down the East Coast, and they’re collapsing because we have too many white-tailed deer,” said Christopher Spatz, the foundation’s president. “Our forests are not being permitted to regenerate.”
Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author