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Is the eastern cougar really extinct?

Posted by Steve Busti

The photo of this taxidermied cougar above supposedly shows the last cougar killed in Pennsylvania in 1874. On Wednesday, March 2, 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern cougar extinct.

I have reason to believe the truth to be otherwise.

You see, if you are to acknowledge the official account that all eastern cougars were indeed eradicated by man nearly a century ago, then what am I to make of an eyewitness report of a cougar by someone very close to me — my own father.

I remember years ago my dad had told us of his late night encounter with what he believes without a doubt to have been a mountain lion, or cougar.

Today, upon hearing this news about the big cat supposedly being extinct for the past 80 or so years, I once again questioned my dad about his sighting, and he is still adamant about what he saw — “It was a mountain lion.”

It was about thirty years ago, in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. At the time, my dad was still commuting back and forth every weekend to his job in Brooklyn, New York, while the rest of the family stayed in our new home in the woods of PA. My father had just left our house to begin the 3 hr commute to the city, it was a Sunday night about 4 o’clock in the morning and still dark out. He was traveling on Rt 590 East in the small rural township of Bohemia, and he had just passed a local bar and long-standing landmark, The Cuckoo’s Nest (which is still there today). He suddenly saw a large animal cross the road in front of his headlights.

He described the animal as being large, about the size of a German Shephard, but insists it was definitely not a dog, but was more feline-like. He says it moved from left to right across the road, and disappeared into the underbrush. It wasn’t running, but he said it stayed close to the ground and was slinking. Although it was dark, he got a good view in his headlights, and described the animal as being a golden brown color. He estimates the entire sighting lasted about two seconds.

He doesn’t believe it could be anything but a cougar.


ALLENTOWN, Pa. – The “ghost cat” is just that.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday declared the eastern cougar to be extinct, confirming a widely held belief among wildlife biologists that native populations of the big cat were wiped out by man a century ago.

After a lengthy review, federal officials concluded there are no breeding populations of cougars — also known as pumas, panthers, mountain lions and catamounts — in the eastern United States. Researchers believe the eastern cougar subspecies has probably been extinct since the 1930s.

Wednesday’s declaration paves the way for the eastern cougar to be removed from the endangered species list, where it was placed in 1973. The agency’s decision to declare the eastern cougar extinct does not affect the status of the Florida panther, another endangered wildcat.

Some cougar enthusiasts have long insisted there’s a small breeding population of eastern cougars, saying the secretive cats have simply eluded detection — hence the “ghost cat” moniker. The wildlife service said Wednesday it confirmed 108 sightings between 1900 and 2010, but that these animals either escaped or were released from captivity, or migrated from western states to the Midwest.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service fully believes that some people have seen cougars, and that was an important part of the review that we did,” said Mark McCollough, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who led the eastern cougar review. “We went on to evaluate where these animals would be coming from.”

A breeding population of eastern cougars would almost certainly have left evidence of its existence, he said. Cats would have been hit by cars or caught in traps, left tracks in the snow or turned up on any of the hundreds of thousands of trail cameras that dot Eastern forests.

But researchers have come up empty.

The private Eastern Cougar Foundation, for example, spent a decade looking for evidence. Finding none, it changed its name to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation last year and shifted its focus from confirming sightings to advocating for the restoration of the big cat to its pre-colonial habitat. The wildlife service said it has no authority under the Endangered Species Act to reintroduce the mountain lion to the East.

Once widely dispersed throughout the eastern United States, the mountain lion was all but wiped out by the turn of the last century. Cougars were killed in vast numbers, and states even held bounties. A nearly catastrophic decline in white-tailed deer — the main prey of mountain lions — also contributed to the species’ extirpation.

McCollough said the last wild cougar was believed to have been killed in Maine in 1938.

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