Eastern Cougar formally declared "extinct"

While Western cougars and Florida panthers still roam the woods, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists insist that the Eastern cougar is officially extinct and will no longer be considered an endangered species. (Illustration: Mark McCullough, USFWS)

This story will make many people mad. Others will just laugh or scoff. Some will likely write or post angry rebuttals, sharing the occasion when their (father, brother, uncle or friend) came face-to-face with a cougar on Sand Mountain or some other area within rock-throwing distance of Chattanooga.

However, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, the Eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) is officially extinct. In fact they say it has been for many decades. The proposal to remove Eastern cougars from the list first came in 2015 but it didn't actually occur. As of Feb. 22, 2018, however, it will be removed from the Federal Endangered Species List. They say the move is "correcting a lingering anomaly that listed the species despite it likely having gone extinct many decades before the Endangered Species Act was even enacted. Data from researchers, 21 states and Canadian provinces across the subspecies’ former eastern North American range indicate the eastern cougar likely disappeared forever at least 70 years ago."

This does not mean that cougars are extinct. The Eastern cougar is one of two "subspecies" existing in North America. Western cougars (Puma concolor) are faring well. And the Florida cougar subspecies (Puma concolor coryi), while critically endangered, still roams in the Sunshine State. USFWS biologists say any cougar sightings east of the Mississippi River are either Florida panthers, released or escaped captive animals or cougars dispersing from the West.

Tennessee biologists definitely believe the latter is the case for the documented cougar sightings in West Tennessee in recent years, although there have been no more documented sightings since September 2016.

Accounts suggest that most eastern cougars disappeared in the 1800s, killed out of fear for human and livestock safety and were victims of massive deforestation and overharvesting of white-tailed deer, the cougar’s primary prey. The last records of eastern cougars are believed to be from Maine (1938) and New Brunswick (1932).

USFWS biologists say that since Eastern cougars are extinct they cannot be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, under law, the eastern cougar listing cannot be used as a method to protect other cougars.

In some Western states where cougar populations are healthy enough to allow hunting, some groups have or might try to outlaw hunting, arguing that it's impossible to distinguish Western cougars from the "endangered" Eastern cougar. Such a legal argument would now be negated.

While officially Eastern cougars are considered gone forever, rest assured that in the hearts and minds of many, the big cats will always roam the mountains.

More: Frequently asked questions about cougar delisting