Endangered Cougars Could Be Staging Comeback

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Federal scientists say mountain lions are extinct in the East. But sightings of the big cats continue, and some researchers say cougars could be staging a comeback.

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Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Eastern Mountain Lion or cougar from the endangered species list. Federal scientists went so far as to declare the species officially extinct.

But North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports that this is a rare case where extinction may not mean the end of the line.

BRIAN MANN: One day in 1997, Ken Kogut was driving down a highway in New York's Adirondack Mountains, and he saw something that shouldn't have been there.

Mr. KEN KOGUT (Chief Environmental Conservation Officer, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation): A mountain lion bounds out into the middle of the road and stops dead.

MANN: Cougars are supposed to be long gone from these valleys. But Kogut is a top biologist with New York's conservation department. If anyone is qualified to know what a mountain lion looks like, this is the guy.

Mr. KOGUT: It looked at me, and then with one bound, it literally cleared the other lane, cleared the shoulder of the road, landed in the ditch, and the last I saw was it running south with a long, black tail tip.

MANN: Kogut thinks the cougar he saw was probably an exotic pet released into the wild. But it turns out, mountain lion sightings are tantalizingly common in the Northeast.

Bo Ottmann is a landscaper in Connecticut, who founded an organization in 2007 called Cougars of the Valley. He thinks the federal government knows that cougars remain in the Northeast. He thinks wildlife agencies don't want the hassle or expense of caring for the animals.

Mr. BO OTTMANN (Founder, Cougars of the Valley): I think they just want to put it behind them. If they take the eastern cougar off the endangered species list, that means they don't have to protect them. They don't have to spend the money.

MANN: This debate has been raging for decades. Mark McCullough is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's lead expert on eastern cougars. He acknowledges that people do sometimes think they see these big cats. He's convinced that mountain lions vanished as early as the 1930s, and most sightings are either mistakes or involve mountain lion pets released into the wild.

Mr. MARK McCULLOUGH (Endangered Species Biologist, Fish and Wildlife Service): All these lines of evidence suggest that cougars do turn up from time to time, but the eastern cougar is extinct.

MANN: McCullough uses the word extinction. But even if he's right - and most scientists think he is - the fate of the eastern mountain lion isn't as final or straightforward as it sounds. For one thing, scientists now think these vanished mountain lions were genetically identical to other cougar species that still thrive in the west. That means their gene pool is still alive and well.

The other big development is that those western mountain lions have begun a long migration, spreading fast from states like Idaho and Wyoming and reaching as far east as Indiana. A lot of scientists think they'll eventually reach the East Coast.

Mr. RAY CURRAN (Ecologist): Oh, I'd love to see them back here, because they're beautiful animals when they're hunting.

MANN: Ecologist Ray Curran trudges through spring snow in a pine forest in the Adirondacks. He points to a rugged bluff.

Mr. CURAN: Looks like something you'd see in the Rockies. They're great places for wildlife to hide. And it looks like really good mountain lion habitat.

MANN: Wild spaces like these are the reason cougars could stage a comeback. During the late 18 and early 1900s, most of the big forests in the east were wiped out by industrial logging. But in many areas, the forests have regrown.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's Mark McCullough says this is, once again, prime cougar country.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: We have areas in eastern North America that are large enough, have the right kind of habitat, adequate prey populations.

MANN: So if those western mountain lions continued their journey east, scientists say this is one extinction that could be reversed naturally.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

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