The eastern cougar,(left) a large and elusive tawny wild cat that once prowled over wilderness in 21 states, is now extinct, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Wednesday.
Experts had long questioned the cougar's existence. Though it has been on the endangered species list since 1973, the animal likely has been extinct since the 1930's, said Dr. Mark McCollough, a senior scientist with the FWS.
Federal researchers had been studying whether the eastern cougar was present in the 21 states where it had a historical range.
"(Researchers) found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar," said Martin Miller, the FWS Northeast head of endangered species.
The cougar is a large cat. Adult males weigh 175-200 pounds and average 8 feet in length. Adult females weigh 75-175 pounds and average slightly less than 6½ feet in length. The cougar has a long, slender body; small, broad, rounded head; and short, rounded ears that lack elongated terminal tufts. It has a long (26- to 32-inch), thick tail, which is lacking in the bobcat and Canada lynx. Cougars are uniformly tawny; the chance of a cougar being black is extremely low in North America. The underside of the body is whitish, overlaid with buff and dusky spots, especially along the flanks and inner sides of the limbs. The feet are dark brown. The upper lip is whitish, and the back of the ears and tip of the tail are blackish brown. The fore paw has five toes, the hind paw four. Each digit has a retractile claw. Track width is 3-4 inches and rarely shows the claws. Tail marks may be seen in deep snow. The cougar's vocalizations are a purring sound and a high scream.
The federal agency said individual sightings of cougars in the wild in recent years actually matched other subspecies, including South American cats that had either escaped from captivity or were released to the wilderness as well as wild cougars from Western states that had migrated east.
The cougar was once found throughout all of North and South America between southern Canada and Patagonia. The current range of the cougar is greatly reduced, and the species is primarily found in the western U.S. and Canada. However, frequent, unconfirmed sightings are reported throughout its former range in the East. A recent intensive five-year survey effort in the Southeast failed to produce reliable evidence of eastern cougars. The closest known breeding population to Maine is in northwestern Ontario. (Right: Florida panther)
Cougars inhabit large, undeveloped tracts of habitat. They can live in forested, grassland, and alpine habitats. In general, they are shy, secretive animals, but in recent years they have been seen more frequently in suburban areas in the West where development has intruded into their habitat. Adequate prey, particularly white-tailed deer, is an essential habitat characteristic.
The eastern cougar also is known as a puma, panther, catamount, painter or mountain lion depending upon its habitat, according to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to raising public awareness of eastern cougars.
Since the charity's inception in 1998, years of field work to try to verify eastern cougar sightings have failed to produce a single confirmation, the group said on its website.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife agency is readying a proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, since extinct animals are not eligible for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The move does not affect the endangered status of other wild cat subspecies, including the Florida panther. That panther now exists in less than 5 percent of its historic habitat throughout the Southeast. It currently has only one breeding population of 120 to 160 animals in southwestern Florida, the FWS said.
Reuters,"U.S. officials declare eastern cougar extinct", accessed March 3, 2011