Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct. Officials made the sad conclusion after a review of the big cat's status in the Eastern United States yielded no evidence of the reclusive animal in the area for over 70 years.
The agency recommended that the animal be removed from the nation’s endangered species list.
The eight foot long animal - also known as pumas, catamounts, mountain lions and ghost cats – were once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, with a range that encompassed 21 states and Canada. European settlers saw them as pests and a threat to livestock, placing bounties on their heads and hunting them to near extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. The last eastern cougar was believed to have been killed in Maine in 1938.
However, many wildlife enthusiasts have reported sightings of the animal and refuse to give up hope that the “ghost cats” still roam in their historic range.
"We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar. However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar," explained the Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller.
Officials say the big cat sightings are either cases of mistaken identification or former captive cougars.
The Florida panther is the only other subspecies of puma surviving in the wild in the eastern United States, with one breeding population between 120 and 160 animals living in Southwest Florida under protected status.
Consequences of the loss of a top-level predator such as the cougar have included an explosion in the deer population as well as a decline in the health of Eastern forests.