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The US Fish and Wildlife Service officially marked the end of the Eastern cougar on March 2 this year after 38 years on the Endangered Species List (ESA). The cougar was known to live around the Eastern US but its existence has not been officially confirmed since the 1930s. Although sightings have been consistently reported until present day, the US Fish and Wildlife Service have come to the conclusion that those incidents could not have been of the eastern cougar subspecies since no supporting information has been found in the time period. For that reason, they moved the cougars status from ‘endangered’ to ‘extinct’.
The eastern cougar was a subspecies of the North American cougar, which is currently considered critically endangered and can only be found in a few protected areas in Florida. Overall, the American cougars have been in a critical decline and experts believe that the species is running out of time.
Who is the cougar? Well, it is known as the widest-ranging native land animal in the Americas, having migrated from Asia approximately 8 million years ago and evolved into the different cat lineages known in present day. Even though the cougar is the second largest felid in the Americas, it is closer related to smaller cat species than to lions and tigers. In the 1890s and early 1900s, German animal parks experimented with breading separate subfamilies of the cat species and found cougars and leopards capable of hybridizing. The resulting ‘pumapard’ had very distinct features from both subspecies but according to an article from Mongabay.com, most cubs died young. Those that reached adulthood developed genetic dwarfism.
Cougars are known to be able to live in virtually any environment but research has shown that the species needs at least 850 square miles of uninterrupted habitat to achieve low risk of extinction. The main reason behind their decline in population is said to be the expansion of human population into cougar territory which has resulted in a bad reputation for the cougars. Many states in the Western parts of the US and Canada have resident cougar populations and all, except California and the Yukon, allow hunting. However, Texas is the only state that allows the hunt to go unregulated because it groups the cougars as ‘nuisance wildlife’.
There is also a perceived threat of cougars attacking livestock but research shows that this threat is minuscule. What is also very rare are attacks on people. The slight increase in attacks in recent decades, though still very small numbers, is attributed to civilizations expansion into the cougars habitat. The problem for the cougar population is that attacks receive heavy media attention and have succeeded in blacklisting cougars as malignant, undermining its role in the local ecosystems.
Environmental groups like WWF, Panthera and Cougar Rewilding Foundation continuously work to ensure the conservations of the wild cats but some subspecies are down to just 50-100 individuals which makes the task extremely challenging. With the demise of the Eastern cougar, the megafauna has lost another of its unique subspecies, joining the list of els, bears and wolves which have all vanished within the last 100 years.