Nearly 80 years after the last sighting of the “ghost cat,” eastern cougars are being removed from the endangered species list.
While there are more than a few names for the varying subspecies of these big predatory cats – puma, mountain lion, western cougar, panther – the eastern cougar has proved to be the most elusive. Why?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now says it believes they have actually been extinct since 1938, when the last documented eastern cougar was killed in Maine (see below). In the few years prior to that, only a few were found (and killed).
In the photo above, New Brunswick wildlife expert Bruce Wright poses with (what most believe to be) the last eastern cougar. While this cougar subspecies has been on the endangered list since 1973, extinct animals cannot technically be protected by the Endangered Species Act, and the proposal to remove them from the list is underway.
Where there were once thousands of cougars throughout the U.S., very few remain. Their demise began in the 1800s, when immigrants began to kill them off to protect their livestock. As civilization grew, the cats’ territory diminished exponentially, along with their food sources.
Relatives of the eastern cougar, like the mountain lion, can still be found in many western states, while others, like the Florida panther, remain in jeopardy on the endangered list.
The debate over their extinction has been ongoing. Many people believe they have spotted eastern cougars since 1938, but the FWS sees no evidence that the cats spotted are this specific subspecies, but rather one of its cousins. It is a debate that will likely continue, as “sightings” continue on a fairly frequent basis.