Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Eastern" Cougars?

Eastern cougar

A photo I took of Coby, Puma Concolor
When you say "Eastern cougar" what do people hear? I think they hear
"cougar that reside in the east" rather than identifying this as a specific subspecies of the great cat. This is quite the misnomer. Eastern cougars, which were recently confirmed and declared formally extinct by the USFWS, are a specific subspecies of cougar (puma concolor couguar) rather like the Florida subspecies (puma concolor coryi). Traditionally, it is accepted that the eastern cougar's natural range extended from Canadian provinces west to the Mississippi and south into Tennessee extending to the coast. The Florida panther home range was estimated to range from southern florida up to and bordering the range of the eastern cougar.

The reason this is important is because, while the eastern cougar has been declared extinct, that does not mean that individuals from the current Floria population or the western population haven't begun dispersing to our region. Furthermore, there are estimates ranging from a mere 100 up to 1,000 captive cougars of varied genetic composition in captivity in the eastern united states. Hypothetically, if any of the transient males that have begun dispersing (as the ones we have proof of are all subadult males) were to encounter a released or escaped female... Maybe then we would actually see a population rather than just individuals.

But my questions specifically surround protection. With the eastern cougar being declared extinct, what are the repercussions of shooting a cougar now in this region? With no big game laws around it, does that negate the ability to kill it indiscriminately? For this I seek advice with more knowledge on the subject than I. I asked a hunter friend who I consider a reliable resource and he states that in TN it would have to be a very clear case of self-defense to keep a hunter out of trouble - that there is no season (and therefore you cannot shoot for the sake of shooting) for the cat.

So let's make a drastic flying leap with some data... There was a confirmed western cat in CT and a confirmed Florida cat in mid-Georgia. That's 2 males - lets assume that is half of the transients that made it this far. If we take the middle ground on potential captive cats, that's 500. Of that 500, let's say that 5% are released illegally because they aren't nearly as cuddly when they weight 150 lbs and realize they can eat you. That's 25 individuals. Now let's say that 1% escaped, which is another 5 individuals. Of those, we can estimate that 50% are female. So now we have a wild population of 32 cats in 15 states with 17 males (large range) and 15 females. Looking at just the national forests (c/o, there is a strong stretch of wooded lands from the Chattahootchee in northern GA extending up to northern VA. A very large range hitting exactly where I live... Southeastern TN, northwest GA, southwest NC.

I know from personal knowledge that deer densities of this region are high. So are coyote and black bear densities. So what, then, are the odds that this would be a place of refuge for either dispersed nomads or former captives?

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