The eastern puma is extinct, declared so by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week.
The federal agency announced the puma’s demise as it removed the eastern puma from the list of protected wildlife and plants under the Endangered Species Act.
The eastern puma was a subspecies of the animal also known as cougar or mountain lion, which is still widely distributed across the West. It once roamed as far north as southeastern Ontario, southern Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada, south to South Carolina and west to Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan.
The eastern puma’s range contracted from the 1790s to the 1890s due to human persecution abetted by the extirpation, through hunting, of its primary prey, white-tailed deer. The last three eastern pumas were killed in 1930 in Tennessee, 1932 in New Brunswick and 1938 in Maine.
“The extinction of the eastern puma and other apex carnivores such as wolves and lynx upended the ecology of the original colonies and beyond,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Over a century after deer went extinct in the Northeast, they have returned with a voracious vengeance, and botanists lament the disappearance of formerly abundant plant communities. We have forests that have lost the top and the bottom of the food chain.”
The eastern cougar was extinct well before it was protected under the Endangered Species Act, as was the case with eight of the other 10 species that have been delisted for extinction. Overall the Endangered Species Act has been 99 percent successful at saving species from extinction.
A different subspecies of the puma, the Florida panther, survives in a small, isolated and precarious population at the rapidly urbanizing southern tip of Florida.
These animals, too, were once widespread, from their namesake state north to Georgia and west to Arkansas and eastern Texas. Cougars from the mountainous West have reclaimed lost habitat and currently reproduce as small populations in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.
Individual Florida panthers and midwestern cougars that have traveled long distances have been hit by cars, shot by hunters or killed by authorities in recent years throughout the Midwest and East, but there is no breeding population in the historic range of the eastern puma.
“Through public and civic tolerance and through reintroduction at the state level, pumas could be returned to the East to play their ancient role in controlling deer herds,” said Robinson. “This is a somber moment to think about what the land under our feet used to be like, and what roamed here. It should also be a clarion call to recover pumas and all of our apex predators to sustainable levels to help rebalance a world that is out of kilter.”