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Federal government wants to remove eastern cougar from endangered species list

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

You might’ve heard about cougars being spotted in Michigan. There are also cougars out west and there’s the Florida panther. But what we’re talking about here is something called the eastern cougar.

There’s a debate about how different these animals are from each other.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the eastern cougar used to be found in Michigan, parts of Canada and Maine and farther south.

But the USFWS says that animal is extinct. And the agency wants to take it off the endangered species list.

Here's how the USFWS explains it:

The Service completed the formal review of the eastern cougar in 2011. During the review, the Service examined the best available scientific and historic information, queried 21 states and eastern Canadian provinces, and reviewed hundreds of reports from the public. No states or provinces provided evidence of the existence of an eastern cougar population. The Service concluded that cougars occasionally occur in eastern North America, but that they are either Florida panthers, dispersing animals from western populations, or have been released or escaped from captivity. The conclusions are based on a review of more than 100 reports dating back to 1900.

Cougars in Michigan

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the last known eastern cougar was killed in 1906 near Newberry.  

But there have been cougar sightings on and off in Michigan since then.

Brian Roell is a wildlife biologist with the MDNR’s cougar team.

He says since 2008, the DNR has verified 29 cougar sightings in the Upper Peninsula.

“We’ve had, basically every year since 2008, a handful of either tracks, and lately a lot of photographs off trail cameras,” he says.

So where are they coming from?

Roell says they don't know how many cougars are in the U.P., but he suspects it's a single digit number.

He says they also don’t have any evidence that there are any remaining eastern cougars, and he says they also don’t have any evidence of a breeding population in Michigan. He says the cougars in the U.P. are probably western cougars that wandered over from the Dakotas.

“That’s the closest proximity to a known population. Any animals of an eastern cougar descent would have to come from a remnant population and we don’t even know of any population of eastern cougars,” says Roell.

But other people argue cougars have survived in small remnant populations in the state.

“I believe we’ve had cougars in the east for a whole century, I mean not in any large numbers,” says Patrick Rusz, director of wildlife programs for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.

“Whether that is a so-called eastern cougar or not, I don’t know. But they’re a cougar. And I would contend that the geneticists that are working on that today probably have it right in that there was never a solid basis for an eastern cougar subspecies.”

Credit Flickr user Bruce Tuten / Flickr
Some scientists say the various subspecies of cougars might not be significantly different from each other.

Rusz is referring to a debate about whether subspecies of cougars are really all that different from each other.

Mark McCollough is an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Maine Field Office.

He says research has revealed that cougars living in the Dakotas, cougars living out west, Florida panthers and this eastern subspecies of cougar are all pretty similar.

“It turns out that some of the most recent science in the last 15 years would indicate that there’s really not much difference between them," he says.

He points to research by Melanie Culver from the University of Arizona.

"Her doctoral work showed that all cougars in North America —  where there were once 15 to 17 subspecies that were named here —  perhaps all of them really are only one subspecies of cougar," he says. "So there were two options for the Fish and Wildlife Service to pursue in de-listing the eastern cougar subspecies. One was based on extinction, which is what we are moving forward with. And the other would have been taxonomic error, that perhaps there never really was an eastern cougar subspecies."

He says the USFWS decided to pursue the first route, the de-listing of the eastern cougar subspecies based on extinction, because many cougar biologists who contributed to their five-year review of the eastern cougar in 2011 maintained that a few subspecies survived in North America. 

"So we, based on that indecision and sort of dissension amongst some of the cougar experts, we decided to pursue a de-listing based on extinction," he says.

McCollough says if the eastern cougar is taken off the endangered species list, management will fall to the states.

Michigan does not have a management plan in place if the eastern cougar is de-listed. But cougars are protected by state law.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.