Biology, Books for the News

The Cougar which isn’t a Mellencamp

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The eastern mountain lion—called occasionally cougar, catamount, panther, painter, puma, or mountain screamer—was once one of the most widely distributed terrestrial mammals in the Western Hemisphere. But times have turned for these secretive and crepuscular big cats (the cougar is the largest of the small cats, actually, although it characteristically resembles those from the larger Pantherinae subfamily). In the twentieth century, following two centuries of European colonization, the mountain lion population on the Eastern seaboard was declared all but extinct. Dwellers in this coastal region questioned the existence of this majestic subspecies, giving rise to all sorts of legends—all of this despite the fact that it had been officially listed on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list since 1973.
On March 2, 2011, the USFWS finally declared the eastern mountain lion (Felis concolor couguar) officially extinct.

“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” said the Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the continued existence of the eastern cougar.”

The Service’s decision to formalize the extinction of the eastern cougar does not affect the status of yet another wild cat subspecies listed as endangered: the Florida panther. Once one of the most common predators of the Southeast, the Florida panther now exists in a breeding population of less than 200, which combs a habitat less than five percent of its original size and scale.
Maurice Hornocker, director of the non-profit Selway Institute, began his first long-term study of cougars in 1964. Since then, his groundbreaking research has led to more than 100 published papers on everything from the lynx and bobcat, to the ocelot, wolverine, and yes—even the Florida panther. Cougar: Ecology and Conservation is the capstone to Hornocker’s pioneering career as a big cat researcher, and a powerful resource for scientists and conservationists alike. Edited in tandem with Sharon Negri, Cougar brings together twenty-two distinguished scientists, who together offer our fullest account yet of the cougar’s behavior, genetics, ecology, and conservation needs, accompanied by stunning photographs of the creature in the wild and in captivity. From firsthand field research to ecosystem analyses, Cougar puts recent extinctions like that of the eastern mountain lion in perspective, and cautions new generations as to what delicate balances keep these enigmatic creatures from facing oblivion.
To learn more about cougar conservation, visit the Cougar Network or check out the Cougar Fact Center at the World Wildlife Fund. For additional information about Cougar: Ecology and Conservation, including reviews and awards, please visit the book’s University of Chicago Press website, here.

Bruce Wright, New Brunswick wildlife biologist and author, with what is believed to be the last eastern puma. The puma was trapped by Rosarie Morin of St. Zacharie, Quebec in Somerset County, Maine in 1938. Mounted specimen resides in the New Brunswick Museum in St. John, New Brunswick (image and photo credit courtesy the USFWS).