Yes, Virginia, There Are Cougars In the East
Why do people want to believe they've seen the rarest and arguably the most dangerous animal in the woods? Surely there is an element of thrill seeking, in a culture addicted to the fastest, biggest, and fiercest, whether in machines, mountains, or animals. For many people, cougars are the most magnificent embodiment of wild, uncontrolled nature. But even where populations of cougars are known to exist, sightings are notoriously inaccurate and therefore not accepted by scientists. "There's never any field evidence," was the official response to all sightings -- until the 1990s, when the situation changed dramatically.
Confirmed field evidence began to accumulate, and at an astonishing rate. Documentation in the form of DNA and other analyses conducted by highly regarded biologists can now be found in peer-reviewed scientific journals, reputable newspaper articles, and governmental agency file memos and reports. This continuing trend may be due to increasing numbers of cougars throughout the East, increasing numbers of people living in rural areas, increasingly sophisticated DNA and other technology, or increasing interest by the press in reporting alleged encounters - or all of the above. To avoid looking completely incompetent, state and federal agency biologists have had to acknowledge that there are a few cougars out there. To deal with this development, they have shifted the argument to a question of origins. The official line now is that the cats being documented couldn't possibly be remnant natives and must all be FERCs (feral escaped or released captives) from subspecies other than that designated as the endangered eastern cougar.
No one has proven - or is likely to be able to prove -- that remnant native cougars did not survive in the deep woods of the Northeast or the Southern Appalachians, the most likely refuges. A second possible source of cougars in the East is migrants from the west (coyotes moved eastward decades ago and are now breeding in every eastern state), and from Florida (Florida panthers are the only officially acknowledged population of cougars in the East, and several radio collared males have been tracked moving north). A third source is FERCs. DNA testing has proven that a few recently documented wild eastern cougars have South American genes, testifying to the pet trade. Adult cougars, engineered by nature to continually roam hundreds of square miles and kill their own food, do not adapt well to pet status and some owners have very likely released their hard-to-manage pets.
All cougars can interbreed, and any cougar capable of living free in the wild is capable of filling the eastern cougar niche. But by calling into question the genetic heritage of cougars living wild in the East, wildlife officials are attempting to sidestep the Endangered Species Act, which lists only the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) and the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar). Never mind the intent of the Act to preserve rare life forms, or the scientific impossibility of defining unique eastern cougar genes, or the common practice of substituting subspecies from elsewhere in many official wildlife projects (including the Florida Panther Program) when the original genome is extinct or debilitated from inbreeding.
It's not so surprising that even with unarguable field evidence, wildlife officials refuse to change their policy of denial. Clearly, something other than a reasonable demand for scientific validation is at work here. Political support for state wildlife agencies comes in large measure from deer hunters, who generally perceive deer-eating cougars as direct competitors, despite decades of scientific evidence from western studies that contradicts this belief. Plus, deer numbers in much of the East are so high as to cause serious agricultural, motor vehicle, and disease problems.
The fact that cougars can kill people (very, very rarely) and livestock (very occasionally) also make agencies reluctant to tackle the issue. However, western states have developed considerable expertise in either avoiding or mitigating these problems, so eastern wildlife agencies have abundant resources to tap.
Living with a top predator is perhaps the greatest challenge to humankind. The question about eastern cougars is no longer whether they are there, but how we as a society will respond to their presence.
Chris Bolgiano is the author of Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People. Her forthcoming (and her fourth) book is a collection of eastern cougar source materials entitled, The Eastern Cougar Anthology: History, Mystery, and Science of Eastern North America's Great Cat, From the Time of Columbus to the Present. She is also vice president of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to recovery of wild cougars in the East.
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