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Eastern Cougar Declared Extinct


The western cougar, shown here, bares a striking resemblence to the eastern cougar which once roamed West Virginia wild.   Today, they are no more.  Officials say sightings in WV are generally big cats relesaed from captivity, misidentification, or in rare cases  a western sub-species which migrated.  Photo: USFWS

They once roamed the craggy hills of West Virginia with authority, but today Mountain Lions are no longer part of the landscape.    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued a report and officially declared the eastern cougar extinct.  

"Even though the eastern cougar has been on the endangered species list since 1973, its existence has been questioned for quite some time," said Meagan Racey with the USFWS. "We conducted a formal review of the available information and concluded at the end of that that the eastern cougar is extinct."

The Fish and Wildlife Service report actually concludes the last known wild cougar was killed in Main around 1936.    The last known wild cougar in West Virginia was taken in 1901 along the Greenbrier River in Pocahontas County.  Racey says there are indications the cougars could have still be in the mountains as late as 1910.  There’s a documented case of one in a logging camp in Tucker County in 1908.  

The last known eastern puma, killed in Maine in 1936. Photo USFWS

Despite the rareness, reports of sightings persist.  Many credible people who are well aware of the outdoors have stories of seeing big cats in the wild with the rust color and elongated tail.   Racey and the USFWS don’t discount those reports.

"Over the last 50-years there have been thousands of investigations of puma sightings," said Racey. "We’re acknowledging and understanding that people can and do see cougars."

But, the sightings are believed to be either a misidentification of the species, another sub-species of cougar from North of South American which as been released or escaped form captivity, or in rare cases may have been western cougars that migrated to the United States.  Western cougars have expanded their range from the Rockies as far east as Illinois.   

Racey says when they’ve followed up on investigations of sightings and pictures, they’ve been amazed at the misidentifications.

"Pumas are frequently confused with house cats, dogs, bobcats, Canada lynx, foxes, fishers, coyotes, and deer," she said.

It’s hard to imagine how seeing a deer can be confused with seeing a top level predatory cat, and yet it happens.

"When people see something it’s a flash response," said Racey. "You assume you see a cougar, you want to see a cougar.   They are astonishing creatures.  They’re elusive, romantic symbols of wilderness and it’s troubling for many to recognize the northeast is absent of this top level predator."

The West Virginia DNR indicates there are fewer than 15-state issued permits to harbor a puma, which are easily bought with the right amount of money at auction spots across the country.  Many of those wild game sales however are sub-species from elsewhere, especially South America.   The DNR believes there are far more who actually harbor the animals illegally.

It’s unlikely the number of sightings will stop, especially with similar looking cats available on the black market.  However, if you happen to spy one of the scarce critters, it isn’t the same creature that once roamed West Virginia with authority and secrecy.   Those cats are gone forever.


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