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Government officially declares Eastern puma extinct, ends protections

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – Federal officials have declared the Eastern puma extinct, 80 years after the last confirmed sighting of a graceful wildcat that once roamed widely from the Upper Midwest to the Atlantic seaboard.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it was removing the animal from the endangered species list. The move completes a process started in 2015, when the agency proposed dropping federal protections for the Eastern puma, which is also known as the cougar, mountain lion and catamount. Its territory ranged from Michigan and southern Ontario to New England, the Carolinas and Tennessee.

The action is largely a formality, as the last known member of the population was seen in 1938. But it was necessary because a species can be listed as endangered only if it’s believed to still exist.

“Given the period of time that has passed without verification of even a single Eastern puma, the Service concludes that the last remaining members of this subspecies perished decades ago,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a Federal Register notice.

Some pumas have turned up occasionally in Eastern states in recent decades, the agency said. But genetic and forensic testing shows they had been released or escaped from captivity, or had wandered in from the West.

The puma once was the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere but has disappeared from two-thirds of its original range since European settlement began, the agency said.

Its decline resulted from poisoning, trapping, hunting and bounty programs aimed at wiping out the species, along with loss of forested habitat and a sharp drop-off in the 1800s of whitetail deer, the puma’s primary food source.

The Florida panther, an endangered separate sub-species, is the only remaining breeding population east of the Mississippi.

The federal agency said it considered feedback from scientists and the general public before making the decision to declare the Eastern puma extinct.

Although historically classified as a distinct sub-species, recent evidence suggests the Eastern puma may have been the genetic equal of other U.S. puma or cougar populations, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. The Fish and Wildlife Service said further analysis is needed to determine whether that’s true.

Either way, Robinson said, declaring the Eastern puma extinct removes a barrier to transporting wildcats from the West in hopes of rebuilding populations in Eastern and Midwestern states.

“It provides a green light for discussion and hopefully action,” Robinson said. “We need large carnivores like cougars to keep the wild food web healthy. Cougars would curb deer overpopulation and tick-borne diseases that threaten human health.”

It would be up to the states to initiate such efforts, Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Meagan Racey said. Many places in eastern North America probably could support pumas, which are adaptable and can live in grasslands, forests, mountains and swamps, she said.

“Wild cougar populations in the West have been expanding their range eastward in the last two decades,” Racey said. “While individual cougars have been confirmed throughout the Midwest, evidence of wild cougars dispersing farther east is extremely rare.”

A young male cougar traveled about 2,000 miles from South Dakota through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York before dying on a Connecticut highway in 2011. A cougar of unknown origin was killed in Kentucky in 2014.