The eastern cougar is now officially extinct.
The big cat used to roam the forests, mountains, and grasslands in every state east of the Mississippi, but it has not been seen now for the last eight decades (the Florida panther is a distinct population). Although the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) opened up a review into the status of the mountain lion in 2011, it was only in 2015 that federal wildlife biologists finally concluded there is no evidence of a viable population left.
They recommended that the eastern cougar be taken off the Endangered Species Act, and this Monday they finally saw that happen as the subspecies (Puma concolor cougar) was declared extinct. They had been on the list since 1973, although no one had seen any in the previous three decades. It's thought the last one was probably shot by hunters in Maine in 1938.
In the 80 years since the last confirmed sighting of an eastern cougar, there have been some who say they have seen them. But the FWS notes that these individuals are most likely escapees from zoos and private collections or are western cougars expanding their range eastwards. This is based on the fact that there is no scientific or physical evidence to support populations still surviving.
The official declaration of the extinction of the cougar might – paradoxically – be a good thing. It means that the states that have been prevented for decades from reintroducing animals from the western population should now be allowed to do so.
“We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy, so we hope eastern and midwestern states will reintroduce them,” says Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Cougars would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”
While the big cat has been persistently persecuted and hunted for its perceived threat to people, livestock, and pets, a better understanding of the role that large predators like the mountain lion play in the wider ecosystem means we are coming to realize the benefits they confer.
According to a recent paper detailing these benefits, cougars are good for human health in more ways than one. Not only do they reduce the number of ticks by killing deer, but they also save lives by reducing deer-car collisions. In fact, if pumas were reintroduced across the US, collisions from deer-car incidents would likely be slashed by 22 percent, saving 115 people and preventing over 21,000 accidents. This would save the economy an impressive $2.12 billion.