Seven decades after the last reported sighting, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct on Wednesday and recommended that it be removed from the nation’s endangered species list.
There’s a lot to say about this, especially because the eastern cougar question is an ongoing hobby horse of mine. Cougar populations were near-ubiquitous throughout eastern North America until being hunted to extirpation between the 18th and early 20th centuries. And mountain lions are a keystone predator wherever they occur in significant numbers and can create significant trophic cascades in the ecosystem – suburban deer and raccoon overpopulation, for example, is in many ways an outcome of the absence of cougars.
Furthermore, cougars prey on people from time to time, and as such are a very important teacher of awareness, bird language, and the quiet mind. As a wilderness skills mentor, I notice the difference between landscapes with an active cougar presence, and those without, in my own awareness and in the awareness growth of my students. Finally, I love mountain lions and am ongoingly aware of (and sad about) their absence in Eastern landscapes. I hope they can return in a viable manner to this ecosystem in my lifetime.
Also, though, I notice that eastern cougars in particular are a topic that sends out interesting concentric rings in group conversation. Where I live in Western Massachusetts, whenever I or anyone brings up cougars in a group, there’s a flurry of activity, sightings, anecdotes, rumors, etc. that moves through the room. Peoples’ bodies start to shake – it’s exciting! And maybe a little scary! And, gosh, I know they’re around, my neighbor saw one, and he was sure of it! Etc.
Something I’ve noticed over time, not-so-subtly-hinted-at above, is that this particular conversation can often be very anecdote-driven, and as a result easily non-rigorous. And I think a reality-based (rather than projection- or fear-based) relationship with the natural world is the healthiest one to have, especially regarding potentially hazardous species like mountain lions. So I’d like to distinguish, and do my best to answer, a few different specific and one-step-more-rigorous questions about eastern cougars. Much of the data in this post comes from The Cougar Network and Cougar News, both fantastic resources.
So with that said, science caps on! (FYI, I’m not commenting on the subspecies taxonomy questions raised by the NYT article – the focus for me is more on presence/absence, distribution, and ecological implications.)
1. Have mountain lions been present in eastern North America in the past 20 years?
The answer to this is, without any question, yes. Sightings are infrequent but ongoing throughout Appalachia and the Northeast. Most sighting are unreliable and unverifiable, but certain sightings (especially by wildlife professionals and/or multiple witnesses who can independently confirm cougar field marks) can be considered more reliable. There’s a very small but semi-steady stream of yet more verifiable evidence like scats, prey species kill sites with clear cougar sign and/or recoverable cougar DNA, and actual dead cougars found.
2. Is there any clear evidence that the mountain lions in eastern North America (other than the Florida Panther) are a remnant population from the animal’s former Eastern range?
As far as I know from talking to wildlife biologists at the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere, the answer to this is no. As the NY Times article says, there’s been no genetic evidence of “eastern” lions in any of the DNA recovered from scats in the eastern states (FWIW of course – see that same article for the ambiguity around the eastern cougar as a distinct subspecies). They’re all either from South America (i.e., released pets) or clearly Western North American in origin. I also have not seen any reporting that documents cougar DNA in the Northeast as from Western cats – all cougar DNA found in New York and New England that I’ve seen documented is from South American animals.
3. Is there any clear evidence of breeding populations of cougars in eastern North America, other than the Florida Panther?
The answer to this is also no. For example, known breeding populations of cougars (even very small ones such as in Florida) will produce roadkills of young on a semi-regular basis, none of which have ever been found in Northeastern states*. There was a roadkill lion cub found in eastern Kentucky in 1997, suggesting (but not confirming, since the cub itself could have been released) at least one breeding event (though not necessarily a breeding population) among cougars in the wild in Appalachia**. For comparison, though, there were at least 4 Florida Panther cub roadkills in 2010 alone, out of a very small breeding population (80-100 animals) in the Everglades.
All that said, though, notice the important distinction here between “no remnant population / no breeding population” and “no clear evidence of such populations”. Breeding populations, in particular, are probably impossible to confirm the absence of, given a) how elusive, and skilled at avoiding humans, cougars are and b) how widely distributed cougar confirmations have been across the eastern half of the continent. New evidence could arise at any time that would indicate a small breeding population east of the currently known range.
Especially given this:
4. Is there any evidence of existing Western cougar populations expanding eastward?
Yes, indeed. See here and here especially. Cougars are actively repopulating their former range, gradually moving eastward from populations in the Rockies and re-establishing breeding populations in the Dakotas, western Nebraska, and western Oklahoma and Texas. With this eastward movement of breeding populations come more and more individual cats wandering significantly further east into the Midwest, especially Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. This trend is likely to continue into the future given the absence of apex predators throughout most of the cougar’s former range. Although density of urban areas and fragmented habitat are slowing their return and decreasing the chances of viable breeding populations establishing in many areas, mountain lions are slowly but surely coming back to the Midwest, and perhaps from there to the East.
In a future post, I’ll pick up this thread and discuss the relationship between mountain lions and people, including the hazards surrounding cougar attacks, the livestock question, and some broader thinking about co-existence with predators.
* There appears to have been a sighting of an adult cougar and cub in the Portland, ME area in 2003. Link here, but the website is anecdote-driven in general and the backlink to the Herald Gazette no longer links to the relevant story. I haven’t been able to confirm this story with any actual reporting, and it may be apocryphal. There was also a conflictingly confirmed sighting of multiple animals traveling together (which, in a wild population, would likely indicate a family group) from northeastern Vermont in 1994 (scroll down for it).
**For some reason, the eastern Kentucky cub finding is not listed in the Cougar Network’s “Confirmations” page for the region including Kentucky, although this set of documentation in Eastern Cougar appears to be legitimate.