Eastern Cougars

Eastern cougars are gone from Maine forever. Or maybe not. Every time we think they are extinct in the eastern United States, one pops up somewhere.

Scientifically classified as Puma Concolor, these large cats go by many names, such as cougar, mountain lion, panther, puma and catamount. The eastern subspecies is thought to have been extirpated; any sightings now are probably escapees or wanderers from the west. There is a lingering population of panthers in the southern part of Florida, primarily in the Big Cypress area and the Everglades. When inbreeding threatened the health of the Florida race, a few western mountain lions were brought in to improve the gene pool.

As a species, the range of these cats is one of the largest for mammals in the New World. Cougars breed from the Canadian Yukon to the South American Andes Mountains. At one time, the range for the eastern subspecies stretched from Nova Scotia to the Mississippi River, and southward through the Carolinas.

The last native cougar in Maine was shot on Katahdin in 1938. The last cougar in New Brunswick was documented five years earlier. The eastern population was probably never very big. In the 1800s, farmers feared for themselves and their livestock, and shot any cougar they spied. Hunters drastically depleted the deer herd, which was the cougar’s chief prey. Long after the eastern cougars disappeared, they were added to the federal endangered species list in 1973.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service generally considers the eastern subspecies to be extinct, but keeps an open mind about reported sightings. There are possibly a thousand cats in captivity in the east, and they’ve been known to escape or to be released. When physical evidence is available, biologists are able to determine the origin of most cats by analyzing the DNA in hair and scat. Samples taken over the last century have shown that virtually all cougar sightings were escapees or western wanderers.

One of those wanderers became famous: In 2011, a cougar was killed by a car in Connecticut. DNA testing revealed that it was part of a population located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Biologists were able to piece together a trail of sightings that documented the cat’s 1,500-mile journey eastward.

Given the cougar’s wide range, it is clearly adaptable and resilient. Mountains, plains and rivers are no barriers. Highways are dangerous, but if they stay out of trouble, cats have enough cover and prey to allow them to wander great distances throughout the United States. If there is a natural barrier, it’s snow. Cougars have the same trouble moving around in deep snow as deer do, which limits their ability to extend their range northward. In their western mountain homes, they are apt to follow their prey to lower elevations in winter.

Federal and state biologists continue to monitor sightings and investigate promising ones. Roughly 20 sightings are reported in Maine each year. Almost all turn out to be non-cougars—they are often misidentified bobcats, fishers or coyotes. While cougars are quiet and stealthy, they leave behind considerable evidence. Scat and hair samples can be analyzed. Footprints in snow would be easy to document. Even the way big cats cache prey for later consumption can provide a clue.

In almost all cases, these signs are missing when biologists investigate a potential sighting. If there were still a resident population, or even an influx of wanderers, sooner or later one would likely be hit by a car or found dead by a hunter. Now that so many people have cameras on their phones, a quick photo to document a sighting would be handy and advisable. But most sightings are too quick—an animal bounding across a road or slinking through the woodline means a split second in view, and then gone.

There are no plans to reintroduce cougars into their former eastern realms. But if they got here on their own and started breeding again, it would stir quite a conversation. Wherever these big cats exist, there is a large ungulate species that is its chief prey, such as deer, elk, moose, goats and sheep. There are now plenty of deer in the east, especially south of Maine – lots of cougar food. Perhaps the east is now too densely populated, but that’s up to the cougars to decide. Meanwhile, if you think you see one, tell the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You never know.

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