HADLEY, Massachusetts (Reuters Life!) - The eastern cougar, a large and elusive tawny wild cat that once prowled over wilderness in 21 states, is now extinct, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Wednesday.
Experts had long questioned the cougar's existence. Though it has been on the endangered species list since 1973, the animal likely has been extinct since the 1930's, said Dr. Mark McCollough, a senior scientist with the FWS.
Federal researchers had been studying whether the eastern cougar was present in the 21 states where it had a historical range.
"(Researchers) found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar," said Martin Miller, the FWS Northeast head of endangered species.
The federal agency said individual sightings of cougars in the wild in recent years actually matched other subspecies, including South American cats that had either escaped from captivity or were released to the wilderness as well as wild cougars from Western states that had migrated east.
The eastern cougar also is known as a puma, panther, catamount, painter or mountain lion depending upon its habitat, according to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to raising public awareness of eastern cougars.
Since the charity's inception in 1998, years of field work to try to verify eastern cougar sightings have failed to produce a single confirmation, the group said on its website.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife agency is readying a proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, since extinct animals are not eligible for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The move does not affect the endangered status of other wild cat subspecies, including the Florida panther. That panther now exists in less than 5 percent of its historic habitat throughout the Southeast. It currently has only one breeding population of 120 to 160 animals in southwestern Florida, the FWS said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)