Cougars - also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers - were once the top predator in the forests of eastern North America, but they were wiped out by the early 1900s due to habitat destruction, hunting and loss of their primary prey, deer. The last confirmed sighting of the big cats was more than 100 years ago, but that hasn't stopped people from looking for them.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to find proof that the eastern cougar still exists, in an effort to update a 1982 recovery plan. Mark McCollough, the lead biologist for the government's current review, says one of the major efforts of the original plan was to search for remaining populations, but "to date, we've not been able to document any information from these particular organized surveys related to the presence of eastern cougars."
The eastern cougar was one of the first animals to be included on the federal Endangered Species list in 1973. But when no population was found after the 1982 recovery plan, federal officials moved on to higher-priority species more likely to make a comeback.
Top-level predator keeps deer population in check
However, sightings of cougars continue to be reported, and McCollough says a lot of people are interested in the carnivore for a variety of reasons.
"This animal and the eastern wolf help to provide a lot of predation on white tailed deer," he explains, adding, "White tailed deer populations are probably at their highest level ever in recorded history here in North America."
Deer herds have a huge impact on the forested environment.
"Many areas in the east can't get the forest to recover and regrow after they've been cut because of deer browsing. Also, because of the tremendous populations of deer, some of our songbird populations are declining. And even some of our federally endangered plants are in danger because of deer herbivory.
"So from an ecological standpoint," McCollough says, "a top-level predator is an important component."
Remote cameras focus on capturing cougars
Despite numerous supposed sightings over the past 20 years, Heather Lessig still believes the cougar is extinct. The Virginia Tech graduate student took a break from writing her thesis last summer to help install and retrieve one of about 50 infrared cameras along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland because of the sightings there.
Stuffing the camera and other equipment into her backpack, she headed south on the trail in southwestern Virginia, stepping over logs and around rocks scattered throughout the dry forest floor.
"We're going to set [the camera] up on the tree, turn it on. The laser beam comes out. As soon as something walks in front of that, it'll automatically trip the camera to go off and flash and take a picture."
Lessig checked her GPS unit to find the exact spot a computer had selected for the survey. The camera had to be mounted on a tree within 100 meters of that random location.
"We're just going to find a spot that has nice habitat. It's a little bit open in the understory, so that it's not dense shrubs right in front of the camera," she explained. "Something that's typical of the forest right at that spot. And just where there's a good tree and a good little clearing that should hopefully get some good pictures."
When she arrived at the coordinates, Lessig opened the camera box, put in the batteries, set the date, and then, using wire, mounted it to a tree just under a meter off the ground.
Thirty days later, she was back to retrieve it. The roll of film included photos of deer and bear, but no cougar. Lessig says the information is helpful, even though they didn't find what they were looking for.
"We have been getting quite a lot of good [photos] of the larger carnivores that they're trying to focus on - bear and fox and bobcat and coyote and what not - and they'll be able to use those kind of pictures to look at where those species are distributed and how they relate to habitat in the surrounding landscape configuration pattern and whatnot."
Escaped pet cougars may be stalking eastern forests
Even though cameras have not captured a cougar, reports of sightings persist, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark McCollough says people may indeed be seeing the big cats… but not the scattered remnants of a native population. He thinks they have escaped or been deliberately released from the exotic pet trade.
"We surmise from the information that we've reviewed that there does not appear to be evidence that the eastern cougar survived naturally in the wild, that most of the animals that we would be seeing here on the eastern seaboard are probably of captive origin."
It's also possible that cougars from North and South Dakota and other western states have made their way east, although McCollough says he thinks that's unlikely.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife's report on the existence of the eastern cougar is under internal review, and if the big cat is found to be extinct, it will be removed from the Endangered Species List - a species whose legal protections came too late. The report should be released next summer.