The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, claiming that scientific evidence shows the animal is extinct.
Thousands of cougar sightings have been reported in the eastern United States (including the Adirondacks) and Canada in recent decades, but the Fish and Wildlife Service says these animals are either dispersers from western populations or pets that have been released or escaped captivity.
In other cases, some of those sightings were of bobcats or other animals.
There is some debate among scientists about whether there actually was an eastern species of mountain lion, but the agency sided with scientists who say there was one.
Speaking on behalf of the Wildlands Network and the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, John Davis criticized the proposal. Both organizations favor cougar recovery in the east, including the Adirondacks.
“We think the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision is very unfortunate because it will make it harder to restore cougars to the east,” Davis said. “We also think it’s a flawed decision because in a sense they created almost an artificial species. The eastern cougar is not a distinct species. The science here is shaky.
“Cougars are native throughout the east. It’s the same species as the cougars in the west. They’re native throughout the east, and they’re very important members of biological communities for their helpful effects in keeping deer numbers in check and helping protect wildflowers and songbirds.”
Cougars are considered a keystone species, meaning their presence has a cascading impact throughout the ecosystem.
While the Cougar Rewinding Foundation and Wildlands Network were against the proposal, the Adirondack Council took a different approach to the issue.
“Rather than debating taking a species off the endangered species list that might not have an established population in the Adirondacks right now, we should focus on how to better protect Adirondack lakes and rivers, unbroken forests and interconnected wildlife habitat, and communities,” said Council director Willie Janeway. “This would ensure that we preserve clean water and the ability to host a widest possible range of native wildlife, as we continue to build vibrant communities that serve as gateways to a globally significant Adirondack Park.”
In its proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service says the most recently confirmed records of cougars in the east were in Tennessee (1930), New Brunswick (1932) and Maine (1938).
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has long maintained that there is no cougar population in the Adirondacks or New York state. That has been backed up by the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, which has found no evidence of wild cougar populations in the northeast.
The only recent physical evidence of a wild cougar in the northeastern United States came in 2011 from a male disperser that traveled from South Dakota. That animal was later hit and killed by an automobile in Connecticut.
Some scientists believe other dispersers (believed to be male) have made their way eastward and are at least partly the reason for some of the cougar sightings in recent years.
“Populations in most western states are believed to be at historically high levels, and breeding populations have expanded their ranges eastward,” states the proposal. “Dispersing pumas have been reported since 1990 in the Midwest, primarily west of the Mississippi River and possibly the Great Lakes Region, with over 130 confirmed puma records documented in Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa.”
Recent studies have found evidence of cougars in eastern Canada, although the origin of them is unknown.
The federal agency’s proposal says that mountain lions are considered extirpated in Quebec despite recent reports. As for New Brunswick, the agency says that a “small number may be present” but their origin and taxonomy are unknown. It says there is a lack of evidence of a viable population.
Although mountain lions could lose their federally protected status, they are still protected by New York’s Endangered Species Act.
Public comments on the proposal are being accepted until August 17.
Photo courtesy Bigstockphoto.com: A cougar prowls in Montana.