In March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced the eastern cougar is officially extinct. Mountain lions used to roam the entire country, coast to coast, and the eastern cougar subspecies occupied the northeast region. The Eastern Cougar has been on the endangered species list since the early 1970's (when the Endangered Species Act first passed), but the last known cat died back in the 1930's. The USFWS says they continue to receive reports of sightings but have not been able to confirm any of these cats were the eastern subspecies. They believe these individuals have been released pets or lions dispersing from the western population.
The controversy quickly escalated a few weeks later when a road-killed lion turned up on a Connecticut road, just seventy miles from New York City. With no signs of having been held in captivity, residents began to wonder if this could be an eastern cougar. After anxiously awaiting lab results, the final verdict was an amazing discovery. This cat was actually a western cougar who had traveled over two thousand miles! And, he had made the trek almost completely undetected by people. Sighting reports were filed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and biologists who gathered DNA samples at those sites determined it was the same lion.
Although the loss of this cat is a tragedy, the fact that he made it so far offers hope that someday lions may repopulate the eastern half of the United States. The next step is to ensure adequate protection laws are put in place (should another lion attempt this journey in the future). Currently, most states without lions don't recognize the species as native wildlife, and thus allow any cat that turns up to be shot on sight. Surely this is the wrong default policy! Shouldn't any dispersing cat that crosses the Midwest receive the maximum protection possible to help the species reestablish a population?