Puma That Vanished from U.S. East Coast 80 Years Ago Sadly Declared Extinct

It’s been 80 years since anyone has reported a verified sighting of an eastern cougar. Now, this subspecies of mountain lion has officially been declared extinct.

Cougars, also known as pumas, panthers, mountain lions, catamounts or painters, have historically lived throughout the U.S., with regional populations forming subspecies. While the animals were pervasive, human activity including hunting and trapping the animals has wiped out the eastern subspecies.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started reviewing the status of the eastern cougar, Reuters reported. In 2015, they found that there wasn’t any evidence that this subspecies still existed, such as photos or DNA, so they should be declared extinct. The delisting of the eastern cougar from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered species list rule will officially be effective on February 22.

American_Cougar Ice, a three-year-old female North American cougar, licks its cub at the Royev Ruchey zoo in a suburb of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, December 8, 2015. This subspecies is closely related to the Eastern cougars, which are extinct. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Cougars are large, tan felines that have had a spotty history with humans. Like other predators in the U.S., cougars are often blamed for killing livestock, and people have killed them preemptively as pest control, especially in the 1700’s and 1800’s.

Killing cougars hasn’t stopped since then, however. Even an agency with the U.S. Department of Agriculture kills cougars, including 330 cougars in 2016, to help protect domestic animals from being preyed upon. (Although, some research suggests that the mass killing of predators can, in some cases, increase their attacks on livestock.)

Because they are no longer listed as an endangered species, their habitat doesn’t necessarily have the same protections. However, this delisting can be a positive for cougars in general, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). A lack of native eastern cougars clears the way for conservationists to populate the area with closely-related western cougars, which are abundant across the western U.S., the Center said in a statement.

By reintroducing large, predatory cats like cougars to areas of the eastern United States, like the Adirondacks mountains, where there aren’t dense populations of humans, CBD argues we could restore an ecosystem with predators and prey in balance.

“We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy, so we hope eastern and Midwestern states will reintroduce them,” Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate at the Center said in a statement. The Center for Biological Diversity is one of several groups suing the USDA for killing high numbers of predators, including coyotes and cougars.