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In The Country

The Florida Panther

Tim Iverson

(3/2018) March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb as the old folk saying goes. Lions donít generally call Maryland home, but it wasnít in the too distant past that we did in fact have a resident lion population Ė Puma concolor, or the mountain lion. Mountain lions can go by many names: cougar, puma, panther, or catamount. Itís a game of semantics because theyíre all genetically identical, but in North America they all refer to the same big cat. In January, the Eastern Puma was officially declared extinct and removed from the Endangered Species List. Historically speaking these cats did roam Maryland and much of the rest of the country as well. While relatively common, even as recently as mid 1800ís, they are virtually non-existent anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains with the exception of Florida.

Mountain lions were extirpated (locally extinct) from Maryland sometime in 19th century. When the Eastern portion of North America was settled by colonists these big cats roamed free and were pretty common. If they were so common then you might be asking yourself where they all disappeared to. These cats suffered from a double blow Ė hunting and habitat loss. Early colonists saw cougars as both a nuisance and a threat. They also preyed on livestock farmed by the colonists, which in turn caused a number of problems in terms of financial and basic survival needs. They turned their rifles on the cats and began to clear the land. However, they didnít just stop at clearing the land of the cats themselves. Logging was a major industry throughout much of the northeast and Appalachia, and as a result the mountain lions lost much of their habitat. This is a common story throughout much of the eastern United States, and the only known population of cougars remaining in the east is located in Florida.

The Florida panther is the only known population of cougars in eastern North America, and it is regarded as critically endangered. By 1995 it was estimated that only a total of 20 to 30 remained in the wild. As a result, eight cougars from west Texas were introduced. By bolstering the population and introducing genetic diversity a much healthier panther population has rebounded and continues to grow. Today there are an estimated 150 panthers in southern Florida. While still critically low, the population remains stable. The Florida Panther still faces threats mainly from habitat loss via land development and vehicular strikes.

As a top predator in the food chain in most areas they serve a valuable role in the ecosystem. Much like in the American political system (ideally at any rate) there are checks and balances, and the same is true in nature. Prey species keep their numbers up to ensure survival, while predators keep their numbers in check which ensures things like overpopulation, overgrazing, and more donít occur. Without a keystone species like mountain lions in the area anymore we can see a marked difference in the ecology of the area. Species like deer, which would be prey for cougars, have and continue to explode though the population is managed through measures such as hunting. Inevitably though wherever a vacuum occurs it will be filled, and coyotes have found a niche here. Coyotes traditionally occupied territory west of the Mississippi, but have migrated since and can be found in much of the northeast. With the elimination of competing predators coyotes now function as the top predator in many places.

The whole checks and balances thing can be tricky, but once something is set in motion it can be hard to predict the end result. When colonists were exterminating those pesky mountain lions just 200 years ago they set into motion a line of dominoes that is persisting even to this day. Despite their extermination in the east more than a century ago there are still reported sightings here.

From time to time people will call local police departments or the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and say they have either seen a cougar or have video or photographic evidence of one in the area. Most of these are a case of mistaken identity and there have been no confirmed cases of a wild mountain lion in Maryland since their extirpation. Most often people describe seeing a brownish cat the size of a German shepherd jump across the road or dart across the trail. While there have been a few instances of escaped pet cougars caught over the years what people usually see are either deer, coyotes, or bobcats.

On January 22, 2017 US Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the Eastern Puma from the the Endangered Species List and was declared extinct. However, the puma was likely long extinct even before it was added to the list in 1973. The last confirmed wild sighting was 80 years ago, in 1938. Many biologists and taxonomists urged the revision years ago, arguing that they had been listed in error. Their argument has consistently been that there arenít two separate species of cougars, an eastern and western. Regional differences in size and color exist due to localized conditions, not because of a difference in subspecies. Initial DNA evidence seems to verify this claim. Expansion of the western puma has seen their range press into the midwest and areas along the US and Canadian border. The forests of Appalachia and New England would be suitable habitats for these large cats if they eventually make their way here. An expansion to the east coast is possible, however itís likely decades away.

While there is some evidence to suggest that mountain lions are gradually pushing their way back into the middle and eastern portions of the country they still face threats in their remaining home ranges. The largest key to their survival and any possible expansion into old territory is habitat protection. Repercussions from the elimination or introduction of a species, new or old, can have ecosystem altering effects, and the impact of their absence is still reverberating to this day. What weíre experiencing now is a centuries old experiment that weíre still grappling with. The checks and balances not only apply to the natural world, but applies to us as well. Itís unlikely that cougars reappear in Maryland anytime soon, if ever, but if people take a balanced approach to development and conservation then a healthy and stable mountain lion population can continue to exist elsewhere.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson