eastern puma extinct
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
February 12, 2020 ·  5 min read

The Eastern Puma Has Been Officially Declared Extinct

Scientists have recently determined that humanity has killed 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plant species. Experts have estimated that the rapid loss of species we are seeing today is one thousand to ten thousand times greater than the natural extinction rate (ie- the rate of extinction if humans did not exist) [1].

While we can only make an educated guess as to how many different species exist on our planet, no matter what way you look at it the numbers are grim. The low estimate is that there are around two million different species on our planet. At the current extinction rate of 0.01 to 0.1 percent per year, that means that we are losing anywhere from two hundred to two thousand species of animals each year. At the high estimate of one hundred million different species is true, then we are losing ten thousand to one hundred thousand species every year [1].

Determining whether or not a species or subspecies of animals has gone extinct, however, is not always as straightforward as you might think. In the case of the Eastern Puma, there has been debate among scientists whether or not the animal still exists, and even whether or not it ever existed at all.

A Tragic Declaration

In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially declared the Eastern Puma to be extinct. This large cat used to be found in many eastern states, most notably along the Mississippi River, however it hadn’t been seen in the wild in over eighty years [2].

The official declaration from the USFWS stated:

“Given the period of time that has passed without verification of even a single Eastern puma, the Service concludes that the last remaining members of this subspecies perished decades ago.” [2]

These big cats have a complicated history with humans, and human interference is regarded as the primary reason for their extinction. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, European settlers began trapping and killing pumas in the northeast and selling them for their fur, as well as to prevent them from interfering with their livestock [3].

They have not been regularly spotted in the last century, and now wildlife officials are saying there is no evidence of a sustained breeding population in the area [3].

But Who’s Who?

While this news is very sad, you may not want to start ripping them out of the taxonomic encyclopedia just yet. 

Part of the debate surrounding the Eastern Puma is whether or not scientists are justified in classifying it as its own separate subspecies. For example, when settlers first arrived in North America, they gave Eastern cougars, Western mountain lions, the North American cougar, and the Florida panther each their own unique label. In reality, though, the words cougar, puma, mountain lion, and catamount all refer to the same large cat, known scientifically as Puma concolor [3].

Cougars found in different areas of the country were given different classifications based on superficial variances, like the size of their heads, but advances in genetic testing have proven that regardless of the name they were given, these cats are all genetically the same [3].

Did the Eastern Puma Ever Exist?

So this leaves us with one question: did the Eastern Puma ever actually exist?

This has been long-debated in New Brunswick, Canada, where sightings of cougars have been reported over the decades, but with very little evidence. Don McAlpine, the research curator of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum, is skeptical that there ever was a unique population of cougars in the province, to begin with.

“There may never have been a distinct population of eastern cougar to go extinct,” he said.

“And secondly, there may never have been a resident population of cougar in New Brunswick anyway, regardless of whether it was eastern or anything else.” [4]

He believes that any sightings of the animal would have been the offspring of cougars who were once captive and that the decision in the United States to remove the Eastern Cougar from the endangered list simply perpetuates poor science.

“It perpetuates a public perception that New Brunswick once supported a northeastern-unique population of cougar,” he said [4]. 

Could the Cougar be Making a Comeback?

As was previously explained, the cougar population came under serious threat in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when much of their forest habitat was eradicated to make way for farmland. Cougars were often regarded as competitors for game animals like deer and were also known to occasionally go after livestock, causing humans to attempt to get rid of them [4].

The truth is, however, there probably are a few Puma concolor in the NorthEast right now, they’re just not from the east.

The current “established range” for cougars in the West ends at the Rocky Mountains. Since the nineties, scientists have been tracking populations of cougars east of this area, which could be the start of a population re-establishment throughout the entire continent. Researchers believe that a stable cougar population throughout the midwest might become a reality in the next twenty-five years [5].

Read: Once Nearly Dead As The Dodo, California Condor Comeback Reaches 1,000 Chicks

How Does Cougar Extinction Affect Humans?

Cougars are a valuable part of our ecosystem. Large carnivores keep the deer population from getting too large, which in turn reduces tick populations which can harm human health [2].

In the journal PeerJ, Mark Elbroch and Anna Kusler defined cougars as subordinate predators, which means that they’re carnivores, but they also face threats from other predators like wolves and bears. This puts them at greater risk for displacement, starvation, and even being killed in direct competition with dominant predators [6].

Currently, the overall cougar population is not considered to be of great concern, however, the authors recognize that the population is on the decline, and we still lack research assessing the influence that humans have on their fitness and population coupled with the competition from other predators [6].

Cougars Need Protection

Michael Robinson from the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, wants to see state governors come up with local protections for cougars. Currently, the cats are managed on a state-by-state basis, and in most places, cougars can be legally hunted with a permit. If cougars are delisted as endangered, the states will have more control over their protections [3].

Scientists know that western cougar populations are heading east, and once females are seen in these areas, it could be a sign of a rebounding population. Elbroch says that reintroductions to help boost the populations could be a good viable alternative. As more protections are put in place, both Robinson and Ebroch hope that the ecological balance these predators provide will be restored [3].

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