At one point in time, pumas were one of the most widespread animals in North and South America.
The eastern puma, which used to range from Quebec and Manitoba to South Carolina and Illinois, is now officially extinct. On January 22, the Eastern cougar subspecies was officially declared extinct in the U.S. and removed from the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The words cougar, puma, mountain lion, and catamount all refer to the same large cat, known scientifically as Puma concolor. When early European settlers first moved to North America, taxonomists began classifying the cats as different subspecies. Eastern cougars, Western mountain lions, the North American cougar, and the Florida panther, for example, were uniquely labelled.
Taking the eastern pumas off the endangered list will enable eastern states, such as New York, to reintroduce western pumas, also called mountain lions, into the region. The last eastern puma killed in the wild was in Maine over 80 years ago. Hunters killed off the majority of these pumas in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy, so we hope eastern and midwestern states will reintroduce them,” Michael Robinson, who works for the Center for Biological Diversity, explained.
Reintroducing western pumas will cut down on deer population and help decrease tick-borne illnesses that are harmful to humans. Government officials believe there are eastern regions that are suitable for the reintroduction of pumas. These areas include New England, Adirondacks and the Great Lakes.
Unlike their eastern counterparts, western pumas have successfully repopulated regions in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. Although western pumas and their close relative the Florida panthers have been spotted in eastern states, they have not been able to successfully reproduce because of human intervention and hunting.
Deer populations have skyrocketed in the absence of predators like pumas and wolves. Certain kinds of deer populations, like white-tail deer, eat saplings and acorns, which has led to a rapid decline in new tree growth in the region. This also hurts ground-nesting birds as they do not have enough vegetation to protect themselves.
Now that eastern pumas have been taken off the endangered list, politicians can start spearheading efforts to reintroduce western pumas into the region. Although it is extremely sad that the eastern puma has gone extinct, experts hope that reintroducing another predator will help the environment in the long run.
No current reintroduction plans are in place, except for Florida, where cougars from Texas have been introduced as a possible way to boost population numbers and diversity for the Florida panther subspecies.