When the Cat’s Away: Pumas in the Eastern United States – Part 1

Despite its adaptability, the puma (AKA mountain lion, cougar, or Florida panther) has been extirpated from the eastern two-thirds of the United States. Mountain Lion by Forest Service Northern Region. CC BY 2.0

Introduction

The following is a guest post from Jessica Turner, whom you may remember from this Q&A. It is the first installment in a two-part series about pumas (Puma concolor) in the eastern United States.

This post deals with the extirpation of pumas in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., and some of the controversy surrounding the existence of a distinct eastern subspecies. Part 2 of this series will be written by me, and it will be released as a guest post on Jess’ blog sometime in the future.

When the Cat’s Away: Part 1

By Jess Turner, author of Definearth

This blog is the first in a two-part series about the recently delisted Eastern cougar, and consequent propositions that the subspecies may or may not have ever existed. The Eastern cougar’s presence has not been confirmed in the past 80 years – yet its origins are still in debate. We review the facts in these blogs.

The Florida panther, seen here, is the last remaining population of pumas in the eastern US. Across the Road by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mountain lions can travel thousands of miles looking for mates, prey, or just exploring the natural environment.

Therefore, it is not surprising that a puma spotted in the east coast could be mistaken for a distinct species when it’s really just a wandering North American puma. Articles like this one by Reuters Online admit the species has gone extinct, but don’t address the variability in information about the cat’s origins or identity. There is abundant controversy over whether Eastern cougars ever existed as a genetically-distinct subspecies from mountain lions in the west. Cougars are known to display varying phenotypic traits like fur color or size, but this does not necessarily confirm a different subspecies.

So why did the mountain lion go extinct east of the Mississippi? According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the cat was hunted to extinction. Now, I’ve never heard of puma burgers so I’m lead to believe that they weren’t killed for food.

In the 1800s, pumas were targeted as a nuisance species for their reputation of snacking on livestock. Their fur was harvested secondarily. Another factor that likely didn’t help was the overhunting of white-tailed deer: cougars’ main prey. Habitat loss and fragmentation are also blamed for the cat’s disappearance.

White-tailed Deer by Gerry. CC BY 2.0

Although fragmentation – or the division of natural habitat into smaller, more widely-spaced pieces of habitat – is still a prominent issue today, deer have since recovered due to hunting laws. At present, the Northeast US faces severe issues with deer ticks that embed in human skin and cause many diseases: including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Evidently, the puma’s extirpation has created a ripple effect.

“If a body is left out in the sun and rain, its DNA will be useful for testing for only a few weeks” – Forrest Wickman on Slate.com

An article by National Geographic suggests that hard scientific evidence, specifically genetic tests, have proven the Eastern cougar to be a mere fallacy.

In the past, scientific studies were conducted on the regional scale to determine the origins of local cats. For instance, a study by the University of California Davis in Conservation Genetics revealed genetic differences in California alone. Considering the results of this study, it is possible Eastern cougars did have a unique gene sequence.

“Analysis of…431 mountain lions revealed distinct genetic subdivision that was associated with geographic barriers and isolation by distance in California” – Ernest et al., 2003.

However, no genetic testing has been conducted to pinpoint the differences between Eastern cougars and other subspecies. Such exhaustive testing would be difficult considering the last cat vanished in the 1930’s and DNA can degrade quickly when not stored properly.

Why do you think the Eastern cougar is such a hotly debated topic? And which species do you think we should try to protect, assuming there is a finite amount of resources to do so?

Thanks for reading, and be sure to look out for Part Two.

More Information on the Pumas’ Decline in the East:

Dr. Mark Elbroch – Eastern Cougar “Extinction” – Some Key Points

Mountain Lion Foundation – History of Lions in New York (While the title of this page says ‘New York’, it contains information about the history of pumas throughout the eastern U.S.)

The GuardianEastern Cougar extinct, no longer needs protection, says US conservation agency

The Huffington Post – Eastern Cougar Extinct: Mountain Lion Declared Gone from East US

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Eastern Cougar fact sheet

 

14 Thoughts

  1. About a decade ago, my sister and I saw what we thought was a puma –it was certainly a Very Big Cat, of the tawny variety–here in upstate New York. DEC basically said “No you didn’t” when my dad called to report it. Frustrated, he said, “Oh, so you wouldn’t mind if I shot it, then?” (he never would; he didn’t even own a gun). The DEC officer said, “Sir, if you shoot that cat we’ll arrest you.” Since then, I’ve entertained the notion that there are mountain lions, quiet and still, prowling the Shawangunks and the Catskills of NY. But I’ve never considered the idea, as this article posits, that it was just a “wondering North American puma.” Very fascinating – I’m excited to read Part 2!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well, first of all it’s extremely unlikely that you and your sister saw a puma in New York. Depending on distance/lighting/viewing angles/etc. even ordinary house cats can look much bigger. This became clear to me this past Spring, when my roommate was convinced there was a puma in the abandoned field across from our apartment. I checked it out, and it did look very big from our apartment door. But when I got closer it was clearly a house cat.

      That being said, there was a case back in 2011 or 2012 when a mountain lion from South Dakota walked all the way from his home state to Connecticut. He was actually seen several times in New York state, with hard evidence to back it up.

      When was your Very Big Cat sighting, by-the-way?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m fuzzy on the details, but it was a few years ago. It’s actually possible it was during the time frame you mentioned, now I think of it. The cat was very close to us (alarmingly so) and was definitely not a house cat. It was huge. We do have bobcats around here, but this kitty had a real long tail, not the stumped tail we’ve seen on local bobcats. I wonder if the Connecticut cat wondered up to NY???

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Oh, so it may not have been a decade ago? The Connecticut cat absolutely did pass through New York on his way to Connecticut: that’s well documented. I also looked up the dates again, and he was hit by a car in CT in 2011. So he would likely have been in New York in 2011 or 2010.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I should ask my sister about it. My feeling is to place the sighting between 7 and 10 years ago, since I was either in my late teens or early twenties. It’s so weird: no one up here in NY has ever mentioned that Connecticut cat to me. Really adds another layer to the whole weird story!

            Liked by 2 people

    2. Oh wait, you said your sighing was, “about a decade ago.” So not when the Connecticut cat was in town. Still though, if one puma made it to New York, maybe others have too? It’s not likely, but I have a hard time completely ruling out the possibility.

      Like

    1. I used to donate regularly to the Sierra Club, but since starting grad school I’ve had to scale back all my expenses. Yes, the current USA stance on many things is awful. Our country can’t continue to be so environmentally and socially abusive for much longer without serious repercussions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This can be a very frustrating topic, especially with the disappearance of the cat more than about eighty eight years ago and obviously I don’t think there was technology advanced enough to preserve such precious DNA properly.

    I reckon all species should be protected and carefully cared for, we shouldn’t take any of them for granted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All species should definitely be protected and cared for. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bias against predatory animals in the US that goes back to the earliest days of European colonialism. Dismantling such biases should be one of the primary tasks for those who wish to keep animals like pumas around indefinitely.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes they should.

        The bias against predatory animals seems to run so deep, which is unfortunate.

        I’m hopeful that, one recruit at a time, and maybe soon a majority will be of a different opinion as opposed to always thinking Ill of such graceful animals.

        Liked by 1 person

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