For decades, many have believed the eastern cougar to be extinct. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made it official.
During a recent study, the agency found no evidence to support the existence of the eastern cougar, a subspecies that once roamed from Maine to Georgia and parts of the Midwest. As a result, the agency will recommend the eastern cougar be removed from the endangered species list, where it has been listed since 1973.
The decision does not affect the status of the Florida panther, another subspecies of cougar that’s listed as endangered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the status review as required under the Endangered Species Act. Leading the investigation was biologist Mark McCollough, who spent the last five years combing through historical records, scientific reports and reported sightings to piece together the story of the eastern cougar’s demise over the past 200 years.
“I took the job thinking it would be relatively simple and straightforward,” McCollough said. “Little did I know what I was getting into.”
Fish and Wildlife received almost 600 responses in answer to a request for scientific information on the subspecies. Of the 21 states included in the review, none expressed the belief that the eastern cougar still exists.
Scientists attribute the eastern cougar’s downfall in the late 1800s to the decline of whitetailed deer -- one of their favorite prey items -- as well as bounty hunting.
The last report of a cougar killed in the Smoky Mountains was in the winter of 1920 when a farmer named Tom Sparks was attacked by a cougar while herding sheep. Sparks fought odd the cougar with a knife, and several months later, when a cougar was, a deep cut was found on the animal’s shoulder blade.
Some believe the eastern cougar may have held on until the 1930s in remote areas like the Smokies and parts of northern New England. Yet even today, sightings of these large cats persist.
In its review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concludes that most of these sightings are of captive cougars that have escaped or been released in the wild. The report says people typically are seeing the South American cougar, a subspecies that’s preferred in the pet trade, or wild cougars from the western U.S. that have migrated eastward into parts of the Midwest that were once part of the eastern cougar’s range.
Sifting through all of the records of cougar sightings in the eastern U.S. since 1900, McCollough came up with 110 cases that were well documented by evidence such as photographs or tracks. In cases where DNA testing was done on an actual carcass, the animal often proved to be the South American subspecies, McCollough said.
“You are what you eat,” he said. “With isotope techniques, we can determine whether an animal was raised on whitetailed deer or cat chow.”
Biologists say that in recent decades wild western cougars have established breeding populations in North and South Dakota, and that these animals now are migrating farther east into states like Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Pete Wyatt, regional wildlife program manager for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said he believes it’s only a matter of time until wild western cougars find their way into Tennessee.
“The prey base is out there,” Wyatt said. “There are plenty of whitetailed deer, and we have large, unfragmented tracts of land where they could repopulate.”
Down through the years, people have used the 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an illegal dumping ground for all manner of exotic pets -- everything from monkeys to emus. Last year the park had seven reports of cougar sightings -- the average annual number, according to park officials.
The park maintains that these sightings come from released pets and are not the result of a wild, self-sustaining population.
(Morgan Simmons is a reporter for The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.)