On Monday, in a decision years in the making, the U.S. Department of the Interior published a final rule that declared the eastern puma — also known as the eastern cougar, or colloquially, mountain lion — officially extinct.
Important to remember: Cougar biologists have had a long-running debate on whether the eastern cougar subspecies ever truly existed. Also, biologists seem to agree that the last known example of the eastern puma was trapped in Maine some 80 years ago, in 1938.
Regardless, in 30 days the final rule become law, and the eastern puma will be no more. So what does that mean for the states, including Maine, which were considered part of the animal’s range?
Mark McCollough, a wildlife biologist and endangered species expert for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, works out of the agency’s East Orland office, and has been involved in the process of declaring the eastern cougar extinct for years. He took time on Tuesday to clarify some of the implications of the new final rule.
“The authority for protecting and managing cougars will be solely that of the individual states,” McCollough said. “Some states in this 23-state region where the eastern cougar used to occur still have it listed on their state endangered species lists, so state endangered species law protect the cougar, if any were to show up. But we’ve said that the eastern cougar subspecies is extinct.”
McCollough said Maine is one of the states that has already declared the animal extinct on its own endangered species list.
As a result of the final rule, states — not the federal government — will now be responsible for management decisions involving cougars in the eastern region, despite the fact that eastern cougars or pumas do not exist.
“Basically, [the rule] is giving the states 100 percent authority for management and protection of cougars, and they will each do as they see fit as far as protecting cougars in the future,” he said.
That new jurisdictional scenario has already been recognized by the Center for Biological Diversity, which issued a press release on Monday urging states like New York to consider reintroducing cougars in habitat that could support it, like habitat that exists in the Adirondack mountains.
McCollough said he has not heard of any states considering cougar reintroduction efforts, but said after the final rule goes into effect 30 days after it was issued, states could in fact move forward with reintroduction projects.
“Basically, if states wanted to take cougars from the western United States and reintroduce them here someplace in the east, they’re free to do that,” he said. “That’s a state decision.”
McCollough pointed out that “for obvious reasons,” the proposed reintroduction of cougars to areas where they no longer exist would create some pretty heated debates.
“It’s a large predator. It would be quite controversial, just like restoring wolves would be,” McCollough said. “So I think a lot of states would think very carefully before making a decision, and they would want to have a lot of public input into this, looking at biology issues, but also the public and social issues as well.”
McCollough said that cougars could theoretically thrive in some parts of Maine where there is significant forest far enough from population centers. Snow depths would be a limiting factor, because cougars are big, heavy cats that sink down into deep snow. But while Maine was always on the northern edge of the cougar’s range, he said humans, not the climate were what led to the eastern cougar’s extinction.
“They were widely persecuted and there were bounties on cougars in nearly every state, including Maine,” McCollough said. “Back in the colonial days, they just weren’t tolerated. They were shot, poisoned, trapped and, on any and every occasion, killed, because of their perceived danger to people and livestock.”
Another problem that humans presented: Before game laws existed, human settlers nearly hunted the cougar’s key food source — the whitetail deer — to extinction, at the same time that forests were systematically cleared to be used for agricultural purposes.
Cougars are not scarce in the U.S., and cougars from the western half of the country have shown a steady pattern of migration toward the east over the past decade, McCollough said.
And as some cougars have appeared in the northeast over the past decade, scientists have used new technology to help identify the origin of those cats.
“Half of those animals [that have reached the eastern seaboard] are of South American genetic origin. So, they didn’t come from South America [on foot],” McCollough said. “What we understand are that South American cougars are the origin of many of the captive cougars that people have in North America.”
The other half of the cougars that have reached the eastern seaboard are of North American origin, and those cats are a bit more difficult to figure out. But again, technology is helping scientists determine whether those cats are wild, or have been kept in captivity.
“The other thing we can do is you can look at a tissue sample and from the isotopes that are in the tissue, you can determine whether that animal lived its life eating deer, or whether it lived its life eating cat chow,” McCollough said. “And then, you can say, ‘This had to have come from captivity because the isotopes don’t have a signature for wild animals. It has an isotope for corn, or whatever. For cat food.’”
The takeaway message of that new technology is pretty simple.
“You are what you eat, right?” McCollough asked. “[It would work on] you and me, too. They could probably tell if we ate Wheaties or shredded wheat for breakfast.”
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