The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the eastern puma is extinct and removed it from the federal endangered species list. This distinct population of cougars once lived from Quebec to South Carolina and from Manitoba to Illinois.
Today’s final removal of the eastern puma from the endangered list clears the way for states like New York to reintroduce cougars from the widespread and abundant western population. Eastern pumas, also known as mountain lions, were killed off throughout 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.
“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 Center for Biological Diversity. “Cougars would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged there are large, intact areas of habitat with suitable prey and little human disturbance that could support puma populations. The agency cited habitat in the Adirondacks, New England, the Great Lakes region and elsewhere in the Midwest.
A different subspecies of the puma, the Florida panther, survives in a small, isolated and precarious population at the rapidly urbanizing southern tip of Florida. These animals, too, were once widespread, from their namesake state north to Georgia and west to Arkansas and eastern Texas.
Cougars from the mountainous West have reclaimed lost habitat and currently reproduce as small populations in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Individual Florida panthers and Midwestern cougars that have traveled long distances have been hit by cars, shot by hunters or killed by authorities in recent years throughout the Southeast, Midwest and East, but there is no breeding population in the historic range of the eastern puma.
The extermination of pumas along with wolves and lynx led to the current overabundance of white-tailed deer and accompanying declines in tree regrowth —because the deer eat acorns and saplings — as well as loss of vegetative cover needed by ground-nesting birds.
State leaders like New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo could play a vital role in reintroductions.
“This somber moment should push Gov. Cuomo and other state leaders to bring back pumas to help rebalance a world out of kilter,” said Robinson. “Eastern states should move quickly to reintroduce these magnificent animals, which play such a critical role in controlling deer herds.”
Pumas were once the most widely distributed mammal in the Americas, extending from the Yukon in Canada to the southern tip of South America. The eastern puma’s scientific name is Puma concolor couguar.