Few large animals have generated more lore in North Carolina than the cougar. But now the federal government has officially declared the Eastern cougar extinct.
Eastern cougars or “pumas” once roamed every U.S. state east of the Mississippi River, but it’s been 80 years since one was last seen.
Originally there were 11 subspecies of cougars native to North America, but only two of them – the Eastern cougar and Florida cougar – were found east of the Mississippi. Today, only a handful of Florida cougars survive in southern Florida, and most biologists believe the native Eastern cougar has been extinct for many years.
After a lengthy process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Eastern cougar from the federal endangered species list this week.
Sightings of cougars or their tracks are still reported occasionally in parts of the eastern United States, including North Carolina, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. However, upon investigation, these sightings and tracks often prove to be other animals, such as bobcats, coyotes, dogs or black bears. Some of the reported cougar sightings made in recent years may have been captive animals that escaped or were illegally released.
Cougars, genetic cousins to mountain lions, were once common in the Tar Heel state and left a legacy throughout the Southeast. Many ridges, creeks, swamps and mountains were long ago named for panthers or the colloquial term “painters,” both common names in this part of the country for the cougar.
Early records of North Carolina mammals indicate that the Eastern cougar’s population declined throughout the 18th century because of persecution, hunting, poisoning, trapping, hunting and bounty programs aimed at wiping out the species, loss of habitat and the parallel decline of its major prey species, the white-tailed deer. It is thought that by 1900, the Eastern cougar was extirpated throughout North Carolina.
The last documented sighting of an Eastern cougar was one killed in Maine in 1938.
“While confirmed cougars sightings have occurred recently in the wild in the East, there is currently no scientific or physical evidence documenting the continued existence of a population of wild eastern cougars,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The cougars examined in the Northeast in the past 70 years are likely released or escaped captives. Some cats had a South American genetic profile. Some may be animals that dispersed into the region from western populations. Confirmed cougar sightings have increased in the Midwest and Great Lakes states in recent years.”
The Fish and Wildlife service reviewed the Eastern cougar in 2011 and four years later recommended that it be removed from the endangered and threatened species list since there is no evidence it still exists.
“Given the period of time that has passed without verification of even a single Eastern puma, the Service concludes that the last remaining members of this subspecies perished decades ago,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a Federal Register notice.
Another species, the Western cougar, already is inching its way across the country and some have been seen as far east as Connecticut.
Eastern states “need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy,” Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “(They) would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”
Cougars are so secretive that even in parts of the American West where they are still quite common, many people live their entire lives without seeing one. Likewise, danger to humans has been largely exaggerated, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and although there have been attacks on people, they are quite rare. A cougar is highly unlikely to attack unless it is cornered or a female cat perceives there is a threat to her young.