For centuries, no one was able to gather that all of these cats were in fact the same animal. Once radio telemetry allowed wildlife researches to discover the true nature of the cougar, the many names were already stuck.
Even after the debate over the correct name for this elusive predator had been settled one debate continued to rage on: should cougars be feared or appreciated? The answer is yes.
Eastern Cougars are solitary hunters; instead of pursuing their prey they wait for it in ambush. They have long, strong bodies. They have binocular vision which allows them to hunt both day and night, with impeccable depth perception. They have ears that move independently of each other to better hear their surroundings. They even have the ability to pick up ultrasonic frequencies. They are the ultimate predator.
However, cougars are not merely dangerous predators, they are magnificent creatures. They have beautiful tawny fur, amazing strength, and great power. They can be absolutely silent during a hunt. They can help the forests of the Eastern United States maintain a decent population of their prey (deer) because of their status as the ultimate predator.
Unfortunately, since cougars are only found in the Americas, when the first European colonizers arrived in North America they were unaware of the nature of the long, tawny cats stalking about their settlements. Many early explorers assumed the cats were some form of lion or panther, cats they had encountered before. They soon discovered that they were not the same cat at all, but a mysterious and cunning predator. This made the cougar hard to understand and therefore caused a fearful hatred toward the cougar.
Before it could be helped, the Europeans had seen an enemy in the Eastern Cougar. Cougars were hunted with dogs, in the 20th century, in an attempt to extricate them completely from the forests of North America. Deforestation in the early twenties further decreased the cougar’s population as well as the depleted number of deer due to increased hunting. Today, due to the constant expansion of the human population and conflicting land uses, Eastern Cougars were extirpated.
The Eastern Cougar had been on the Endangered Species list since November 2000. The Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the Eastern Cougar extinct on February 23 of this year; however, scientists have reason to believe this is an erroneous decision. The Eastern Cougar was originally viewed as separate subspecies from the Western Cougar.
Now, due to a genetic study performed in 2000, biologists have reason to believe the Eastern Cougar and the Western Cougar are the same species, they simply live in different areas of the country. However, unless the Western Cougar attempts to re-inhabit in the east, “Eastern” Cougars will remain extinct. The recent sightings of cougar in Connecticut may be forecast of the future for “Eastern” Cougars. Since scientists have made it clear that geography is the only thing separating the Western Cougar from the Eastern Cougar, the “Eastern” Cougar might make a comeback.
Those who see the beauty in the beast, have high hopes in the Eastern Wildway as a way of helping the Eastern Cougar make its comeback. The Eastern Wildway will be a 2,500 mile corridor of forest designed specifically to rejuvenate endangered species of the east – cougars included. Hopefully, as the project gains momentum so will the Eastern Cougar.
Those who see the Eastern Cougar, or any predator, as keystone species understand the necessity of protecting them. Yes, cougars are dangerous, allusive, and frightening, but they are also important to the ecosystem. The ecosystem operates in a system of “top-down” ecological interactions, starting at the top with large predators – cougars.
When the beginning of the “top- down” process is extricated, the system collapses almost immediately, leading to ecological simplification and species loss. This difficult paradox has haunted all predators since the European explorers first set foot in North American soil. Is the danger of having large predators in North American forests worth the well being of countless ecosystems?