It's official: the once-imperiled "eastern puma" has been removed from the list of North American wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act. Traditionally, this would imply a recent loss or success for conservationists, but not so with this top cat. In fact, officials have revealed that the cougar in question may have been extinct for decades.

As far as we know, the eastern puma was a mid-size subspecies of cougar (or mountain lion) with wide shoulders and small skull. Originally there were 11 subspecies of cougars native to North America, but only two of them - the Eastern cougar and Florida cougar - were found east of the Mississippi River. The range of the eastern variety in particular was thought to stretch as far north as southeastern Ontario, and southern Quebec, as far south as the Carolinas, and as far west as Kentucky, Illinois, and Michigan.

The Disappearing Ghost Cat

This wide range alone may explain how the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) overlooked the disappearance of an entire species of large predatory cats to begin with. Experts had determined that the coat of the eastern puma could even vary by season and location, making it all but a ghost in a forest, despite its size.

However, the "ghost cat," as it was aptly called by trappers, quickly lost its range after European immigrants began to actively hunt them and their primary prey, the white tailed deer, in the late 1800s. According to the FWS, "the last records of eastern cougars are from Maine (1938) and New Brunswick (1932)." (Scroll to read on...)

So why was the animal still listed when the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted nearly four decades later? Congress and the FWS were reportedly hesitant to declare the animal extinct after it became clear that many people were sighting large "ghost cats" after the late 1950s.

"Sightings increased along with assertions by biologists, press coverage and other writers that believed there was sufficient evidence of the subspecies' existence. These assertions and sightings were accepted without verification, and coincided with a growing number of cougars in the North American pet trade," the Service recently explained. "This led to the 1973 listing of the eastern cougar, despite a lack of empirical evidence showing that populations existed at that time."

The listing also led to the formation of a recovery plan in 1982 that detailed how conservationists could help the cougars recover if there were at least three self-sustaining populations of the elusive animals left in remote parts of their shrunken range.

A Ghost Long Gone

However, by 2011, experts with the FWS officially expressed their near-certainty that the eastern puma was extinct.

"We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar," said the Service's Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. "However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. "

This conclusion as based of a review of 573 responses from the scientific community - material consisting of published studies, field work, and detailed notes. Over 100 reports dating back to 1900 were also assessed. Experts agreed that most sightings were likely escaped cougars of a different sub-species, or even bobcats in their native ranges. (Scroll to read on...)

"We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar," Miller said.

Four years later, at the request of the FWS, congress has now stricken the eastern puma from its list of endangered species.

A Comeback Cat?

Still it's important to note that even if the eastern puma is gone, some conservationists believe that similar top predators, such as the threatened Florida Panther, would happily reclaim the ghost cat's haunts if given the chance.

"The extinction of the eastern puma and other apex carnivores such as wolves and lynx upended the ecology of the original colonies and beyond," Michael Robinson, of the Center for Biological Diversity, explained in a recent statement. "Over a century after deer went extinct in the Northeast, they have returned with a voracious vengeance, and botanists lament the disappearance of formerly abundant plant communities. We have forests that have lost the top and the bottom of the food chain."

And he's not lying. Nature World News has detailed in the past how the absence of wolves in the northwest US has led to an overabundance of elk in the area - herds which overgraze and leave berry patches essential to local bear diets destitute.

In this way, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park wound up aiding bears and reestablishing balance. Robinson hopes to see a similar story with the introduction of new cats in the eastern puma's range. (Scroll to read on...)

"Through public and civic tolerance and through reintroduction at the state level, pumas could be returned to the East to play their ancient role in controlling deer herds," he added. "This is a somber moment to think about what the land under our feet used to be like, and what roamed here. It should also be a clarion call to recover pumas and all of our apex predators to sustainable levels to help rebalance a world that is out of kilter."

However, according to the FWS, this is an unlikely future.

"The Service does not have the authority under the ESA to replace the extinct eastern cougar subspecies by introducing another cougar subspecies," a representative explained.

The service added that while the Florida panther once ranged throughout the Southeast, sharing a great deal of the ghost cat's territory, there are no plans to recover the species outside the bounds of Florida state. As thing stand, there are only up to 160 of the animals left, occupying less than five percent of their habitat.

The once assurance that remains is that they will not slip away as quietly as the ghost cat did. It will be a fight, according to the FWS, but one that they and state officials intend to win.

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