People say they still see them, but the feds say they’re not there.
No eastern cougars remain to be seen here in the Southeast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in a report issued today: Once widespread across the South, that particular species of cougar now is extinct, and has been for years, the service decided.
The eastern cougar has been on the endangered species list since 1973, but the service is recommending it be removed, as extinct animals aren’t eligible for that protection.
The proposal does not affect the status of the Florida panther that roams the peninsula down around the Everglades. The panther is a separate subspecies. “Though the Florida panther once ranged throughout the Southeast, it now exists in less than 5 percent of its historic habitat and in only one breeding population of 120 to 160 animals in southwestern Florida,” the service says.
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On Nov. 16, 2008, near Abbottsford, Ga., on Army Corps of Engineers land around West Point Lake, a Newnan hunter in a tree stand shot a 140-pound, 7-foot-long male cougar initially thought to have escaped humans who had held it captive. It was well-fed, had a “very low” parasite level — as though it had not been eating wild game — and its paw pads were scuffed like it had been caged on concrete, authorities said.
Later DNA tests showed the cougar was a Florida panther – about 600 miles from the breeding population in south Florida.
Other area residents have reported seeing cougars roaming the wild, but most of those sightings remain unconfirmed.
“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” the wildlife service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller says in today’s press release. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”
The service concluded the animals described in regional reports either were South American subspecies that had been held in captivity and had escaped or been released, or they were cougars from the western United States that migrated to the Midwest.
“During the review, the service received 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies; conducted an extensive review of U.S. and Canadian scientific literature; and requested information from the 21 states within the historical range of the subspecies. No states expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population,” says the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement.
Mark McCollough, the agency’s lead scientist on the eastern cougar, said it probably has been extinct since the 1930s.