New Brunswick

Eastern cougar declared extinct, but whether it ever existed is a question

Not only is the eastern cougar about to be declared officially extinct, a New Brunswick scientist doubts there ever was one in the first place.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes eastern cougar off list of endangered species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the eastern cougar is extinct in the continental U.S. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

New Brunswick's popular debate over the existence of the eastern cougar might be coming to a close.

Not only is the eastern cougar about to be declared officially extinct, a New Brunswick scientist doubts there ever was one in the first place.

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will remove the animal from the federal list of threatened and endangered wildlife because it's already extinct.

The service said it was "correcting a lingering anomaly that listed the species, despite it likely having gone extinct many decades before the Endangered Species Act was even enacted."

The step couldn't be avoided, said Mark McCullough, a biologist with the U.S. service in Maine.

"We've lost a species of wildlife that once occurred here," McCullough said Monday. "That's something none of us are very pleased about.

"But we do have to acknowledge that it has occurred."

In 1976, he said, the eastern cougar sub-species became one of the first animals to make the endangered list established under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"While many suspected cougar sightings are probably mistakenly identified bobcats or other animals, cougars do occasionally occur in eastern North America," the wildlife service said in a statement.

There may never have been a resident population of cougar in New Brunswick anyway, regardless of whether it was eastern or anything else.- Don McAlpine , research curator of zoology, New Brunswick Museum

"But they are cougars of other subspecies — either Florida panthers, animals dispersing from western populations, or animals that have been released or escaped from captivity."

The statement that will remove the eastern cougar, or eastern puma, from the endangered list as of Feb. 22 said that the last confirmed sighting was in 1938, and that it is "highly unlikely" a reproducing population of the animals could remain undetected in the northeast ever since.

Over the years, U.S. officials have reviewed the cougar's status. In 2011, they did a formal review, looking at both scientific and historic information.

They also initiated public outreach and talked to scientists throughout the region.

"We could find no evidence that there was a remaining population of eastern cougars anywhere in eastern North America," McCullough said. "There were animals from time to time that would show up … but no breeding population." 

"We confirmed what we believed all along — the subspecies of this cougar is extinct." 

What about New Brunswick?

Animals spotted in the northeast part of the continent were released or escaped pets or animals that came in from the west, McCullough said. 

"There's no real breeding population of cougars in this part of the continent," he said.

In New Brunswick, sightings of cougars have been reported over the decades, and the people making the sightings have been adamant, despite the lack of evidence.

But Don McAlpine, the research curator of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum, doubts eastern cougars lived in New Brunswick. In fact, he doubts they lived at all.

The U.S. decision to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered list just perpetuates poor science, McAlpine said.

​"It perpetuates a public perception that New Brunswick once supported a northeastern-unique population of cougar," he said. 

Offspring of captive cats

There may never have been a distinct population of eastern cougar to go extinct, he said.

"And secondly, there may never have been a resident population population of cougar in New Brunswick anyway, regardless of whether it was eastern or anything else," he said.

He said any cougars allegedly spotted in the province would have been the offspring of once-captive cougars or were once captive themselves.

He doubted they travelled from western provinces.

"They will travel long distances but for a large predator to travel across highways, to developed areas with lots of hunting and trapping going on, it's pretty precarious," he said

A theory from the U.S. 

McCullough said the eastern cougar population was under assault from settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, when there was no protection for the animal.  

Eastern cougars were thought to be competitors for game animals such as white-tailed deer and would sometimes kill livestock.

There's still hope this animal could recover and reclaim some of its historic habitat.-Mark  McCullough , biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

People felt insecure with cougars around, so the animals were trapped, poisoned and persecuted "to the point they became rare," he said.

In that time frame, their habitat was largely eradicated because of deforestation in the late 1800s, he said.

The U.S. Wildlife Service said cougar populations are increasing in the Midwest in places such as Nebraska, North and South Dakota and possibly in provinces such as Manitoba, but no breeding has yet been documented.

"There's still hope this animal could recover and reclaim some of its historic habitat," he said.

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