“Eastern puma” was defined by place of birth, not by DNA
WASHINGTON D.C.––“We, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, determine the eastern puma to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information,” the USFWS announced in the January 23, 2018 edition of the Federal Register.
“This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies,” the Federal Register announcement added. “It also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938. Therefore, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended, we remove this subspecies from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.”
“Long time coming”
Observed Extinction Countdown blogger John Platt, “This news, sad though it is, has been a long time coming. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service first concluded that the species was extinct back in 2011, and then proposed removing its protected status in 2015. This latest step, taken after extensive scientific review and public comment, completes the eastern cougar’s long journey into the night.
“Eastern cougars — also known as ‘ghost cats,’ catamounts, panthers and, of course, mountain lions — disappeared after decades of overhunting on multiple fronts,” Platt wrote. “The large predators were seen as threats to livestock, which resulted in the cats being actively hunted and bounties placed on their heads.”
Mostly a casualty of deer hunting
The eastern puma, defined as a species by little more than place of birth, was extirpated in part by hunting, but mostly not by puma hunters, despite the intensity of their efforts.
Rather, the eastern puma was mostly a casualty of the late 19th century destruction of the Virginia whitetail deer population in most states east of the Mississippi River. This occurred through the combination of forest conversion to fields, market hunting, and a recreational hunting boom that followed the establishment of deer seasons in many states.
The late Peter Matthieson wrote about this in his first opus, Wildlife In America (1959). In gist, the establishment of bag limits for deer created the erroneous impression among turn-of-the-19th-century hunters that they were all entitled to their quotas, as opposed to the intention of setting upper ends on the numbers who could be killed.
(See Wildlife in America author Peter Matthiessen, 86.)
Deer did not recover to huntable abundance in several states for decades. Some states suspended deer hunting altogether––Ohio as recently as 1961, for a single season, while Connecticut, the last state to reopen deer hunting, waited until 1974 to do so.
With deer scarce, eastern pumas turned to hunting livestock, especially sheep. Then, because eastern pumas had never been especially abundant in the first place, they were relatively easily hounded out of existence on the pretext of protecting livestock.
How pumas survived in the west
A similar sequence of events leading to the loss of much of the puma population occurred in the western U.S., but with the difference that in the west many pumas survived in sparsely populated rural areas, especially in the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, sometimes killing livestock but chiefly continuing to make a living as they always had, by hunting mule deer and elk.
The extirpation of wolves from the west for 70 years before the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and the northern Rockies probably helped pumas by removing a competitor.
The extermination of grizzly bears by California hunters in 1922 and the reduction of the grizzly population to the verge of extinction elsewhere might also have helped pumas to extend their range in the west despite intense hunting pressure whenever and wherever pumas were seen.
Eventually, after mule deer found refuge from hunting and proliferated among the urban sprawl around fast-growing western cities, pumas following the deer population furtively recolonized practically the whole of the west.
The net effect is that pumas are probably now more abundant west of the Mississippi than ever before, with the largest puma populations thriving in proximity to some of the largest cities, notably Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Denver.
Pumas never recovered in the east, however, despite the explosive growth of the Virginia white-tailed deer population throughout their range over the past half century, because the seed stock to rebuild the eastern puma population no longer existed.
The St. Croix cougar et al
Lone western pumas have often wandered into the eastern U.S., into former eastern puma habitat.
The best-known of these pumas, a young male commonly called the St. Croix cougar, accounted for dozens of sightings from St. Croix, Wisconsin in December 2009 to Milford, Connecticut in June 2011, where he was killed by a car on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.
DNA samples established that the St. Croix cougar came originally from the Black Hills of South Dakota, and had also been seen in 2010 near Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Other pumas seen in the eastern U.S. turned out to have escaped from exotic pet keepers and/or hunters, who covertly kept them to train hunting dogs, or as a source of urine from which to make “scent lures” for use in pursuing wild pumas in the western states. Most such cases preceded the passage of the 2003 federal Shambala Act, restricting interstate commerce in large and exotic cats.
Fugitives in Vermont
Some meandering western pumas or pumas who escaped from captivity may have lived for quite a long time in favorable habitats.
Some might even have met up with others for long enough to produce occasional litters of puma kittens, but not often enough or successfully enough to have verifiably established self-sustaining populations.
Longtime Vermont wildlife tracker and tracking instructor Susan Morse several times believed she had discovered evidence of pumas at least passing through various parts of Vermont, but Morse––who still lectures about the possibility that pumas might eventually re-establish themselves in Vermont––never established the long-term presence of pumas.
Looking for the trail
Separately but more-or-less simultaneously, while reporting for newspapers in rural southern Quebec, Vermont, and upstate New York from the mid-1970s into the mid-1990s, I collected information on at least 32 purported puma sightings which did not appear to be attributable to mistaken glimpses of bobcats, lynx, feral cats, foxes, dogs, coyotes, small bears, or any of the other usual sources of mistaken identifications.
Many sightings appeared to have originated with a handful of much rumored but never confirmed western puma escapes from private owners in southern Quebec, where law enforcement identified several individuals in illegal possession of pumas––and other big cats––between 1978 and 1985. A frequent variant version of the rumors was that the illegal owners had released their pumas to avoid being caught with them.
Montreal SPCA investigation
Then-Montreal SPCA investigator Louis McCann, who later headed the Canadian affiliate of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, made a diligent effort to trace the fate of every puma and every other big cat encountered by law enforcement, and did manage to establish what became of many of them, but––as with any other illicit commerce––there really was no way to verify the full extent of the trade, including how many pumas and other big cats in private custody might have completely evaded notice until, one way or another, they died or otherwise disappeared.
The alleged Quebec puma escapes or releases were followed days, weeks, and even months later by alleged puma sightings in adjacent areas of Vermont.
Sightings which may have involved these escaped pumas, or their descendants, continued for 20 years or longer in an elliptical pattern from the mountains just east of Burlington down as far south as northeastern Massachusetts.
Roadside zoo escapees?
The hair and tracks that Morse reported finding might have been associated with those cases––or not, as people in the U.S. were illegally keeping and transporting pumas too, and some dodgy roadside zoos in the region that were eventually closed by the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service might also have lost a puma now and then without any record existing of the accident.
I tracked one reported puma sighting myself, in snow, in an area where sightings had been reported about once or twice a year for many years, and came to what I deemed a judicious stopping point at a 20-foot escarpment. The tracks came to a sudden halt, indicating the critter had apparently ascended the escarpment at a single bound.
By then it was almost twilight, and trying to scale the escarpment myself to see what was on top looked like a fool’s mission, even if I didn’t fall and break my neck.
But even if the animal in that instance was a puma, as seemed probable, the location was much closer to two defunct roadside zoos than to any habitat where wild pumas had been confirmed to exist in almost 80 years,
When pumas reappear
The St. Croix cougar “may not be the last western panther to make New England its home, even temporarily,” Platt concluded. “Many experts feel the Maine woods and other New England locations hold a lot of potential as a possible sites for cougar rewilding as the species continues its eastward expansion.”
When pumas reappear in the east, however, which seems mostly just a matter of time, they will officially not be “eastern pumas.” There never really was much taxonomic reason to consider either the “eastern puma” or the long officially endangered “Florida panther” a distinctive species or subspecies. Designating them as endangered species, before DNA testing existed, bought the “Florida panther” several decades of recovery time, and might have saved the “eastern puma” too, had any existed.
Genetic evidence, however, suggests that the entire puma population of North, Central, and South America are all one closely related family group, some of whom have had the good fortune to find much more favorable habitat than others.