If the eastern cougar has been extinct since the 1930s, then how on earth is it possible that so many people have reported seeing one?
On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct. Specifically, federal officials concluded after a three-year study that there are no breeding populations of cougars -- also known as pumas, panthers, mountain lions, and catamounts -- in the eastern United States. Moreover, they believe that the last wild cougar was actually killed in Maine in 1938.
Yet, people up and down the Eastern Seaboard are constantly reporting sightings of cougars -- crossing roads, hunting in fields, even hanging out in the backyard.
Are these folks totally deranged? Can they see dead cats? What are they seeing?
After reviewing more than 500 reports of cougar sightings, feds say that any cougars spotted north of Florida were likely captive cats that were released or escaped, western cats migrating eastward, or were not cougars at all -- just really big cats?
Here's Martin Miller, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's northeast region chief on endangered species, driving this point home (while inadvertantly crushing eastern cougar fans' hopes and dreams):
We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar. However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.
It's sort of endearing if you think about it: People are so captivated by the sleek, elegant, and stealthy animal that is the cougar that they really want to believe that what they are seeing is really a cougar in the wild.
But what isn't so wonderful, of course, is the fact that the eastern cougar joins a constantly growing list of species that are no longer with us.
In the case of the cougar, they were driven to extinction by humans who hunted them and their main prey (white-tailed deer) in vast numbers. Experts say that the loss of the cougar has led to an explosion in the deer population, which has directly led to a decline in the health of Eastern forests.
Have you ever seen a cougar in the wild?
Image via Harlequeen/Flickr