WASHINGTON, DC, January 31, 2018 (ENS) – Eastern cougars once inhabited all states east of the Mississippi River, but the last confirmed sighting of a cougar in this area happened 80 years ago. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the subspecies extinct and will remove it from the Endangered Species List on February 22.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the decision is the result of years of deliberation. The agency conducted an extensive review of the eastern cougar in 2011, and recommended it be removed from the endangered and threatened species list in 2015.

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Eastern cougar, date unknown (Photo courtesy Lavonda Walton / USFWS)

The species, also known as puma, are the genetic cousins of mountain lions in the Western United States and of Florida panthers, which are now found only in the Florida Everglades.

The agency said, “We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, determine the eastern puma (Puma concolor couguar) to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information.”

“This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies; it also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938.”

During a public comment period last year, several commenters expressed concern that the delisting would prevent the Service from reestablishing or reintroducing pumas in Eastern North America where suitable habitat and prey populations now occur.

Eastern pumas, also called mountain lions, were killed off during the 1700s and 1800s. The last one was killed in Maine in 1938.

Western pumas disperse widely and have shown up as far east as Connecticut.

As a top-level carnivore, pumas are needed to restore balance to ecosystems in Eastern North America, where this role in biotic communities has been missing for over a century.

Some commenters cited scientists who have encouraged proactive leadership on the part of government agencies to assess the possibility of reintroducing pumas to Eastern North America.

Commenting on the ecological importance of pumas as apex predators, several reviewers said that ungulate populations such as white-tailed deer have overpopulated in their absence.

Ungulate overpopulation may cause overbrowsing and reduced biodiversity, declines in understory recruitment of certain trees and reduced ground-nesting bird habitat across the eastern deciduous forest.

In addition to maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, restoring pumas would reduce risk to the public from vehicle collisions with deer and other large ungulates and would reduce human health issues associated with deer ticks as a vector for Lyme disease, scientific studies have found.

“We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy, so we hope eastern and midwestern states will reintroduce them,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “Cougars would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”

The Service acknowledges the science concerning the important ecological role that pumas and other large carnivores serve as apex predators as well as the ecological consequences of high populations of ungulates.

“We agree that ecological science supports the contention that healthy populations of large carnivores can maintain balance in ecosystems and ameliorate adverse effects such as damage to native vegetation from grazing ungulates and population increases of small carnivores. We also acknowledge the potential value of puma recolonization associated with reducing vehicle-deer collisions, said the Service.

The Service recognizes that within the historical range of the eastern puma there are large, intact areas of habitat with suitable prey resources and little human disturbance that could support puma populations, according to a study done by scientists with the Service in 2011.

Potential habitat for pumas occurs in the Southeast, Georgia, the Midwest, the Adirondack region of New York, numerous locations in New England, and the Great Lakes region.

Some authors predict that western pumas will continue to expand their range eastward and naturally recolonize some areas of Eastern North America.

But the Service replies, “Despite the apparent opportunities for puma recolonizations or reintroductions, the Service does not have the authority under the Act to pursue establishment of other puma subspecies within the historical range of the eastern puma.”

While the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend may be conserved, the Act gives the Service the authority to pursue ecosystem conservation only to the extent necessary to recover listed species.

So, the Service cannot maintain the extinct eastern puma subspecies on the Endangered Species List to facilitate restoration of other, nonlisted puma subspecies. Authority over the establishment of nonlisted puma populations resides with the states.

Delisting the eastern puma subspecies would not foreclose future opportunities to reestablish pumas in Eastern North America, the Service says.

The Fate of the Lynx

But the Eastern cougar is not the only big cat that the Fish and Wildlife Service has earmarked for delisting as an endangered species.

On January 11, the Service announced its intention to begin the process to remove Endangered Species Act protections for imperiled Canada lynx in the lower 48 states.

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These lynx kittens in Alaska are more likely to survive than lynx in the lower 48 states. Haines, Alaska, June 12, 2009 (Photo by David Bezaire)

If the Service moves forward with delisting Canada lynx in the contiguous United States, the Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians, and their partners are prepared to challenge the move in court.

Scientists estimate the lynx population across the lower 48 states at a perilously low 2,000 individuals with declining habitat in five of six Canada lynx population centers.

The species and its habitat are threatened by climate change, logging, development, motorized access and trapping.
Canada lynx rely heavily on snowshoe hare, and like their preferred prey, are adapted to living in mature boreal forests with dense cover and deep snowpack.

Scientists’ best estimates for Canada lynx units’ current populations and likelihood of survival are:

Unit 1: Northern Maine – 1,000 lynx; likelihood of surviving to the year 2100 – 50 percent.
Unit 2: NE Minnesota – 100-300 lynx; likelihood of surviving to the year 2100 – 35 percent.
Unit 3: NW Montana/SE Idaho – 300v; likelihood of surviving to the year 2100; likelihood of surviving to the year 2100 – 78 percent.
Unit 4: Washington – 54 lynx; likelihood of surviving to the year 2100 – 38 percent
Unit 5: Greater Yellowstone – no sightings in five years
Unit 6: Western Colorado – 100 lynx; likelihood of surviving to the year 2100 – 50 percent.

In 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ruled that the Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to prepare a recovery plan for lynx after a delay of more than 12 years.

The court ordered the Service to complete a recovery plan or make a determination that a recovery plan will not promote lynx conservation by January 15, 2018.

The January 2018 final Species Status Assessment with its intent to delist the lynx is changed from the Service’s December 2016 draft, which outlined persistent threats and pointed to an increased need for protections for threatened Canada lynx.

“This is a political decision – pure and simple. This administration is throwing science out the window,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who has worked to protect the species over the past decade.

“The best science tells us that lynx are worse off than they were when originally listed in 2000,” said Bishop. “We’re seeing lower numbers, more range contraction, and now understand the significant threats posed by climate change. This, however, was all papered-over by the administration just in time to shirk its legal obligation to issue a lynx recovery plan on January 15.”

The Service first listed the Canada lynx as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2000 but failed to protect any lynx habitat. Lynx habitat received no protection until 2006, and that initial critical habitat designation fell short of meeting the rare cat’s needs and the ESA’s standards, conservationists say.

After two additional lawsuits brought by conservationists challenging the Service’s critical habitat designations culminated in 2008 and 2010, a district court in Montana left the agency’s lynx habitat protection in place while remanding it to the Service for improvement. This resulted in the most recent and still inadequate habitat designation.

“The Service’s abrupt about face is an obvious attempt to abandon the good work toward recovering this climate-impacted species because saving lynx from extinction is not aligned with the Trump administration’s climate denial and emphasis on maximizing resource extraction on our public lands,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to stop playing politics and stick to the science clearly showing lynx need our help.”

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