The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a notice today that the Eastern puma, or cougar, is extinct in the U.S. You can read the notice below. The last confirmed sighting of the cougar subspecies was in 1938 in Maine.
We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), determine the eastern puma (=cougar) (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) to be extinct, based on the best available scientific and commercial information. This information shows no evidence of the existence of either an extant reproducing population or any individuals of the eastern puma subspecies; it also is highly unlikely that an eastern puma population could remain undetected since the last confirmed sighting in 1938. Therefore, under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Act), as amended, we remove this subspecies from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
This rule is effective February 22, 2018.
This final rule is available on the internet at http://www.regulations.gov under Docket No. FWS-R5-ES-2015-0001. Comments and materials received, as well as supporting documentation used in rule preparation, will be available for public inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the Service’s Maine Fish and Wildlife Service Complex, Ecological Services Maine Field Office, 306 Hatchery Road, East Orland, Maine 04431, and on the Eastern Cougar website at: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Martin Miller, Northeast Regional Office, telephone 413-253-8615, or Mark McCollough, Maine Field Office, telephone 207-902-1570. Individuals who are hearing or speech impaired may call the Federal Relay Service at 1-800-877-8337 for TTY assistance. General information regarding the eastern puma and the delisting process may also be accessed at: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar.
Why we need to publish a rule— Under the Act, a species warrants protection through listing if it is endangered or threatened. Conversely, a species may be removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife (List) if the Act’s protections are determined to be no Start Printed Page 3087longer required based on recovery, original data error, or extinction. Removing a species from the List can be completed only by issuing a rule. This rule finalizes the removal of the eastern puma (=cougar) (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) from the List due to extinction, as proposed on June 17, 2015 (80 FR 34595).
The basis for our action— Our decision to remove the eastern puma from the List due to extinction is based on information and analysis showing that the eastern puma likely has been extinct for many decades, long before its listing under the Act. Eastern puma sightings have not been confirmed since the 1930s, and genetic and forensic testing has confirmed that recent validated puma sightings in the East, outside Florida, were animals released or escaped from captivity, or wild pumas dispersing eastward from western North America.
Peer review and public comment—During two comment periods on the proposed rule (June 17 through August 17, 2015 [80 FR 34595, June 15, 2015]; and June 28 through July 28, 2016 [81 FR 41925, June 28, 2016]), we sought review from the public and from independent scientific experts to ensure that our final determination responds to public concerns and is based on scientifically sound data, assumptions, and analyses. We received comments from the public on several substantive issues, including the basis for delisting, the likelihood that any undetected population of eastern puma continues to exist, the potential for restoring pumas to Eastern North America, and protection of nonlisted pumas occurring within the eastern puma’s historical range. We also received peer review comments from scientists with expertise in puma population ecology, management, demographics, conservation, and population genetics. Expert comments focused primarily on the likelihood of eastern puma extinction and on North American puma taxonomy. In preparing the final rule, we considered all comments and information received during both comment periods. The proposed rule and other materials relating to this final rule can be accessed at: http://www.regulations.gov under Docket No. FWS-R5-ES-2015-0001.
Previous Federal Actions
The eastern puma (=cougar) was originally listed as an endangered species on June 4, 1973 (38 FR 14678). On June 17, 2015, the Service published a proposed rule (80 FR 34595) to remove the eastern puma from the List, with a comment period extending through August 17, 2015. The comment period for the proposed rule was subsequently reopened on June 28, 2016 (81 FR 41925). For more information on previous Federal actions concerning the eastern puma, refer to the proposed rule available at: http://www.regulations.gov under Docket No. FWS-R5-ES-2015-0001.
Here we summarize the biological and legal basis for delisting the eastern puma. For more detailed information, refer to the proposed rule and supplemental documents available at: http://www.regulations.gov under Docket No. FWS-R5-ES-2015-0001.
The eastern puma (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar) is federally listed as a subspecies of puma. The puma is the most widely distributed native wild land mammal in the New World. At the time of European contact, it occurred through most of North, Central, and South America. In North America, breeding populations still occupy approximately one-third of their historical range but are now absent from eastern regions outside of Florida. The puma was documented historically in a variety of eastern habitats from the Everglades in the Southeast to temperate forests in the Northeast. Aside from presence reports, few historical records exist regarding the natural history of the eastern puma subspecies.
The eastern puma has a long and varied taxonomic history, as described in the Service’s 5-year status review of this subspecies (USFWS 2011, pp. 29-35). Until recently, standard practice was to refer to the puma species as Puma concolor(Linnaeus 1771) and the eastern puma subspecies as Puma concolor couguar.The taxonomic assignment of puma subspecies is now under question; at issue is whether North American pumas constitute a single subspecies or multiple subspecies. As discussed in detail in our response to comment 4 (see Summary of Comments and Responses, below), the Service acknowledges the broad acceptance within the scientific community of a single North American subspecies, identified as Puma concolor couguar (applying the scientific nomenclature that has been used to refer to the eastern puma subspecies to all North American pumas), based on genetic analysis. However, the Service has not yet conducted a comprehensive assessment of all available scientific information pertinent to North American puma taxonomy, including any potential subspecies. We will undertake a comprehensive assessment of North American puma taxonomy in our status assessment for the Florida panther, and will determine whether to accept a single North American subspecies taxonomy. Since determining whether an entity is listable is relevant only to extant species, such a comprehensive treatment is unnecessary for the eastern puma, but will be necessary for completing the status assessment for the Florida panther. In the absence of a comprehensive analysis concluding that the Young and Goldman (1946) taxonomy is no longer the best available information on taxonomy, we evaluate for purposes of this rule the status of the listed entity—the eastern puma subspecies—and whether or not it has become extinct.
Biology and Life History
There is little basis for believing that the ecology of eastern pumas was significantly different from puma ecology elsewhere on the continent. Therefore, in lieu of information specific to eastern pumas, our biological understanding of this subspecies relies on puma studies conducted in various regions of North America and, to the extent possible, from eastern puma historical records and museum specimens. This information is detailed in the 2011 status review for the eastern puma (USFWS 2011, pp. 6-8).
Historical Range, Abundance, and Distribution
Details regarding historical eastern puma abundance and distribution are provided in USFWS 2011 (pp. 8-29, 36-56). Although records indicate that the eastern puma was formerly wide-ranging and apparently abundant at the time of European settlement, only 26 historical specimens from seven eastern States and one Canadian province reside in museums or other collections. Based on this evidence, Young and Goldman (1946) and the 1982 recovery plan for the eastern cougar (USFWS 1982, pp. 1-2) generally described the eastern puma’s historical range as southeastern Ontario, southern Quebec, and New Brunswick in Canada, and a region bounded from Maine to Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, and South Carolina in the Eastern United States. The most recently published assessment of the eastern puma in Canada, conducted by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), described the subspecies’ range as Ontario, Quebec, and eastern Canada (Scott 1998, pp. v, 10, 29-30). Scott (1998, p. v, 29) indicated that “Manitoba is the easternmost part of Start Printed Page 3088Canada for which there is objective evidence of the virtually uninterrupted survival of a cougar population from European settlement to the present. Genetically, this population must have been closely related to, if not identical with, the original eastern cougars in western Ontario, and less closely related to the original cougars in Quebec and the Maritimes.” Note, however, our response to comment 11 (see Summary of Comments and Responses), which indicates that despite the persistent presence of pumas in Manitoba, we cannot infer from the available evidence that puma occurrence there represents an extant puma population.
The historical literature indicates that puma populations were considered largely extirpated in Eastern North America (except for Florida and perhaps the Smoky Mountains) by the 1870s and in the Midwest by 1900. Their disappearance was attributed primarily to persecution stemming from fear of large predators, competition with game species, and occasional depredation of livestock. Other causes of eastern puma losses during the late 1800s included declining habitat conditions and the near-extirpation of their primary prey base, white-tailed deer. By 1929, eastern pumas were believed to be “virtually extinct,” and Young and Goldman (1946) concurred that “they became extinct many years ago.”
Conversely, puma records from New Brunswick in 1932 and Maine in 1938 suggest that a population may have persisted in northernmost New England and eastern Canada. In the Service’s 1976 status review (Nowak 1976), R.M. Nowak professed his belief that the large number of unverified sightings of pumas constituted evidence that some populations had either survived or become reestablished in the central and eastern parts of the continent and may have increased in number since the 1940s. Similarly, R.L. Downing, as stated in the Eastern Cougar Recovery Plan (USFWS 1982, pp. 4, 7), had thought it possible that a small population may have persisted in the southern Appalachians into the 1920s; however, his investigations during preparation of the recovery plan led him to conclude that “no breeding cougar populations have been substantiated within the former range of F.c. couguar since the 1920s” (USFWS 1982, p. 6). This analysis and conclusion were shared by F. Scott in his COSEWIC review (Scott 1998, entire).
Thus, the most recent confirmed eastern puma sightings date from the mid-1800s to around 1930. Confirmed reports of pumas in Eastern North America (outside Florida) since then have been shown to be either western puma dispersers, as in Missouri, or released or escaped animals, as in Newfoundland.
Although habitat conditions now appear to be suitable for puma presence in various portions of the historical range described for the eastern puma, the many decades of both habitat and prey losses belie the sustained survival and reproduction of this subspecies over that time. A more detailed discussion of the historical status, current confirmed and unconfirmed puma sightings, potential habitat, and legal protection of the eastern puma in the States and provinces is provided in the 5-year status review (USFWS 2011, pp. 8-26).
Summary of Changes From the Proposed Rule
We have not made substantive changes from the proposed rule (80 FR 34595, June 17, 2015). In this final rule, we have added or corrected text to clarify information and respond to input received during the public and peer review comment periods regarding the proposal. These changes have been incorporated into this final rule as presented below.
Summary of Comments and Responses
In the proposed rule (80 FR 34595, June 15, 2015), we requested that all interested parties submit written comments on the proposal by August 17, 2015. We also solicited peer review of the scientific basis for the proposal by reopening the comment period on June 28, 2016 (81 FR 41925). As appropriate, Federal and State agencies, tribes, scientific organizations, and other interested parties were contacted directly and invited to comment on the proposal. Press releases inviting general public comment were widely distributed, and notices were placed on Service websites.
We did not receive any requests for a public hearing. During the two public comment periods, a total of 75 letters submitted from organizations or individuals addressed the proposed delisting of the eastern puma. Attached to one letter was an appeal containing 2,730 names and addresses of individuals opposed to removing the eastern puma from the List. Many letters contained applicable information, which has been incorporated into this final rule as appropriate. Substantive public comments and peer review comments, with our responses, are summarized below.
Comments From the States
(1) Comment: The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) concurred with our finding that pumas are extirpated from the State of North Carolina. Based on that finding and its consideration of the Service’s 2011 status review, the NCWRC indicated there is sufficient evidence to remove the eastern puma from the List.
Our response: We agree with the NCWRC.
(2) Comment: The Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) supports delisting of the eastern puma consistent with our 2011 finding (USFWS 2011) that all known populations have been extirpated from their former range. The VDGIF believes that any wild pumas which may appear in the future will prove to be dispersers from western populations.
Our response: We agree with the VDGIF.
(3) Comment: Several commenters expressed concern that delisting would prevent the Service from reestablishing or reintroducing pumas in Eastern North America where suitable habitat and prey populations now occur. As a top-level carnivore, pumas are needed to restore balance to ecosystems in Eastern North America, where this role in biotic communities has been missing for over a century. Some commenters cited Cardoza and Langlois (2002) and Maehr et al. (2003), who encouraged proactive leadership on the part of government agencies to assess the possibility of reintroducing pumas to Eastern North America.
In commenting on the ecological importance of pumas as apex predators, several reviewers noted that ungulate populations (like white-tailed deer) have overpopulated in their absence. Ungulate overpopulation may cause overbrowsing, “trophic cascades,” and reduced biodiversity (Goetch et al. 2011). It may also lead to declines in mast production (McShea et al. 2007), understory recruitment of certain tree species, and reduced ground-nesting bird habitat (Rawinsky 2008) across the eastern deciduous forest. In addition to maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (Ripple et al. 2014), restoring pumas would reduce risk to the public from vehicle collisions with deer and other large ungulates (Gilbert et al. 2016) and would reduce human health issues associated with deer ticks as a vector for Lyme disease (Kilpatrick et al. 2014). Some commenters noted that restoring pumas to unoccupied portions of their historical range would be similar to the Service’s restoration of wolves to unoccupied portions of their historical range.Start Printed Page 3089
Finally, some commenters argued that the reestablishment or reintroduction of other puma subspecies into the historical range of the eastern puma should not be considered until the status of the eastern puma as extinct is officially recognized through removal of the subspecies from the List. They indicated that delisting the eastern puma could eliminate complications associated with Federal listing and open the door for State restoration projects.
Our response: The Service acknowledges the science concerning the important ecological role that pumas and other large carnivores serve as apex predators (e.g., Kunkel et al. 2013, Ripple et al. 2014, Wallach et al. 2015) as well as the ecological consequences of high populations of ungulates (e.g., Russell et al. 2001, Ripple and Beschta 2006, McShea et al. 2007, Rossell et al. 2007, Baiser et al. 2008, Rawinsky 2008, Beschta and Ripple 2009, Goetsch et al. 2011, Brousseau et al. 2013, Cardinal et al. 2012a, Cardinal et al. 2012b). We agree that ecological science supports the contention that healthy populations of large carnivores can maintain balance in ecosystems and ameliorate adverse effects such as damage to native vegetation from grazing ungulates (e.g., Ripple et al. 2010) and population increases of small carnivores (e.g., LaPoint et al. 2015). We also acknowledge the potential value of puma recolonization associated with reducing vehicle-deer collisions (Gilbert et al. 2016).
The Service recognizes that within the historical range of the eastern puma there are large, intact areas of habitat with suitable prey resources and little human disturbance that could support puma populations (USFWS 2011, pp. 8, 11-25). Scientific articles published before and after our 2011 review conclude that potential habitat for pumas occurs in the Southeast (Keddy 2009), Georgia (Anco 2011), the Midwest (Smith et al. 2015), the Adirondack region of New York (Laundre 2013), numerous locations in New England (Glick 2014), and the Great Lakes region (O’Neil et al. 2014). Some authors predict that pumas will continue to expand their range eastward and naturally recolonize some areas of Eastern North America (LaRue and Nielsen 2014).
Despite the apparent opportunities for puma recolonizations or reintroductions, the Service does not have the authority under the Act to pursue establishment of other puma subspecies within the historical range of the eastern puma. Furthermore, while the purpose of the Act is to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend may be conserved, the Act gives the Service the authority to pursue ecosystem conservation only to the extent necessary to recover listed species. Thus, the Service cannot maintain the extinct eastern puma subspecies on the List for the purpose of facilitating restoration of other, nonlisted puma subspecies, whether to address overpopulation of deer and other ungulates or to achieve any other objective.
Delisting the eastern puma subspecies, in and of itself, would not foreclose future opportunities to reestablish pumas in Eastern North America. Although extinction of the eastern puma obviously precludes reintroduction of this particular subspecies, we concur that officially recognizing the eastern puma as extinct by removing it from the List could eliminate any perceived complications associated with the establishment of other, nonlisted puma populations into the historical range of the eastern puma. We note that authority over the establishment of nonlisted puma populations resides with the States.
(4) Comment: Several commenters questioned the conclusions in the Service’s 2011 status review (pp. 29-35) regarding the taxonomy of the eastern puma subspecies. One individual asked why the Service concluded that “Young and Goldman’s (1946) taxonomy of cougars was inadequate, even by the standards of their time . . .” yet incorporated this flawed taxonomy into its delisting recommendation. Several reviewers indicated that the published range maps of the subspecies were vague and poorly defined, and that the locations of specimens used to determine these ranges were not depicted on the maps. In addition, several reviewers commented that the best available science includes the genetic data indicating that all North American pumas should be classified as a single subspecies (Culver et al. 2000). Some commenters suggested that recent evidence of pumas dispersing far from the Dakotas supports the hypothesis that the North American puma functions as one extensive population with no restrictions to mating.
A few commenters asserted that, based on the widespread acceptance of genetic information leading to the recommendation to revise the taxonomy to recognize all pumas in North America as a single subspecies, the Service should delist the eastern puma subspecies on the basis of original data error rather than extinction. They also stated that, were the Service to determine that delisting is called for due to data error, we must withdraw the proposed rule and publish a new proposal explaining our rationale.
Finally, some commenters suggested that, to resolve these taxonomic questions, the Service should conduct a complete taxonomic review and analysis of the subspecies status of North American pumas, including genetic, morphological, ecological, and behavioral considerations, prior to making a listing determination.
Our response: The 5-year review in 2011 recommended that the Service propose delisting the eastern puma, and that recommendation was based on extinction (p. 57) and not on taxonomy. We note that delisting the eastern puma based on either extinction or original data error would lead to the same outcome, that is, the eastern puma’s removal from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.
The 2011 status review recognized that more-recent genetic information introduced “significant ambiguities” in the species taxonomy that Young and Goldman had outlined in 1946. However, rather than recommending delisting as a result of those ambiguities, the status review recommended that a full taxonomic analysis be conducted to determine whether the taxonomy should be revised (p. 35). Since completion of our eastern puma status review in 2011, there appears to have been increasing acceptance of scientific nomenclature indicating a single subspecies, Puma concolor couguar (Kerr 1792), in North America. For example:
- The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History documents current taxonomy (http://vertebrates.si.edu/msw/mswcfapp/msw/taxon_browser) and recognizes a single North American subspecies of puma, P.c. couguar, citing W.C. Wozencraft (Wilson and Reeder 2005).
- The Federal government’s Interagency Taxonomic Information System (ITIS, http://www.itis.gov/), with the Department of the Interior and the Service as partners, aims to set governmental taxonomic standards and “to incorporate classifications that have gained broad acceptance in the taxonomic literature and by professionals who work with the taxa concerned.” It is important to note, however, that the Service does not consider ITIS to be a legal authority for statutory or regulatory purposes. The ITIS acknowledges a single North American subspecies, P.c. couguar, and calls all separate North American subspecies (=synonyms) invalid taxa, based on expert input from A.L. Gardner (Curator of North American MammalsStart Printed Page 3090and Chief of Mammal Section, National Biological Services, Smithsonian Institution), W.C. Wozencraft (Wilson and Reeder 2005), and prior references (Hall 1981, Currier 1983, Wilson and Reeder 1993, and Wilson and Ruff 1999).
- In 2009, the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) received a proposal from Canada to review the taxonomy and classification of the genus Puma (https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/com/ac/24/E24-18-02.pdf). CITES reviewed the standard nomenclatural procedures, and reviewers recommended accepting a single North American subspecies, P.c. couguar. The Convention referred this “technical issue” to the Animals Committee for review. As of February 5, 2015, the CITES Appendices (https://www.cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php) continued to list the subspecies P.c. couguar and P.c. coryias separate subspecies. The Animals Committee next reviewed the status of North American pumas on September 3, 2015 (https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/com/ac/28/E-AC28-20-03-02.pdf), when Canada and the United States proposed that the eastern puma (P.c. couguar) and the Florida panther (P.c. coryi) subspecies be transferred to Appendix II, because “P.c. couguar is considered extinct . . .” and there is ample protection under the Act for the Florida panther. Concerning taxonomy, “There is uncertainty regarding the traditional subspecies classification of Puma concolor. Recent genetic work suggests that most traditionally described subspecies are poorly differentiated (Culver et al. 2000), and the new proposed taxonomy has been adopted by the most recent version of Wilson and Reeder (2005) and by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2008). CITES continues to acknowledge the subspecies coryi and couguar based on Wilson and Reeder (2nd Edition 1993).” On October 5, 2016, CITES considered a formal proposal to move all North American pumas to Appendix II (https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/17/prop/CA_puma.pdf), which concluded that the eastern puma subspecies was extinct by 1900. The CITES Committee accepted the proposal by consensus and also agreed that the taxonomic reference for Puma concolor would henceforth be Wilson and Reader (2005), with all North American cougars belonging to a single subspecies, P.c. couguar (https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/17/CITES_CoP17_DECISIONS.pdf, last accessed June 5, 2017).
- The IUCN now recognizes one subspecies of cougar (Puma concolor) in North America: P.c. couguar. Concerning its most recent taxonomic decisions, “A more recent study of mtDNA in pumas throughout their range, although with lower sample sizes, supports only two main geographical groupings of North America populations having colonized since circa. 8,000 years before present (Caragiulo et al. 2013) . . . On this basis, we tentatively recognize two subspecies within Puma concolor: Puma concolor concolor . . . [and] Puma concolor couguar (Kerr 1792)” (Kitchener et al. 2017, p. 33).
- The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF, http://www.gbif.org/) recognizes one subspecies of cougar in North America, P.c. couguar. All other subspecies are considered synonyms for P.c. couguar based on the conclusions of ITIS, January 3, 2011.
- NatureServe currently acknowledges several subspecies, including P.c. couguar and P.c. coryi, but notes, “. . . mtDNA analysis by Culver et al. (2000) indicated that Puma concolor was genetically homogeneous in overall variation across North America, relative to Central and South American populations” (http://explorer.natureserve.org/servlet/NatureServe?searchSpeciesUid=ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.101183, last accessed June 5, 2017).
Although some authorities indicate acceptance of a taxonomy identifying a single North American puma subspecies (USFWS 2011, pp. 29-35), others continue to recognize the eastern puma as a separate subspecies. This has created an ambiguous situation that does not clearly replace Young and Goldman as the best scientific and commercial data available on puma taxonomy. We conclude that, despite its deficiencies, Young and Goldman (1946) remains the best available taxonomic information for the puma. We anticipate that in our status assessment for the Florida panther, now underway, we will complete a comprehensive taxonomic treatment that considers all other available scientific information—including morphological, ecological, and behavioral factors, in addition to genetics.
Notwithstanding the commenters’ questions about the taxonomy of the species, we continue to base the delisting of the eastern puma on extinction for several reasons. First, although the Act and its implementing regulations at 50 CFR 424.11(d) allow for species to be delisted for reasons of recovery, extinction, or error in the original data for classification, neither the Act nor the implementing regulations compel the Service to choose one basis for delisting over another when more than one basis is available.
Second, the eastern puma’s existence has been questioned for decades—long before its listing as an endangered species under the Act. We therefore place importance on officially acknowledging our finding, through this rulemaking, that the listed entity is extinct. Clear recognition of this finding should also forestall any speculation that we have discovered evidence of the existence of eastern pumas, a perception that could be triggered by changing the basis for delisting from extinction to original data error.
Third, because the eastern puma has likely been extinct since the early to mid-1900s, and because its existence had not been confirmed at the time of listing, delisting due to extinction in this case could be considered a delisting due to original data error that is more precisely described as “prior extinction.” And because the eastern puma’s existence was questioned long before listing, while new information bringing its taxonomy into doubt did not appear until well after listing, original data error based on prior extinction reasonably has precedence over original data error based on a more-recent taxonomic understanding.
Fourth, although delisting the eastern puma due to taxonomic error would have no immediate effect on the listed status of the Florida panther, it could presuppose the taxonomic status of P.c. coryi and thus cause confusion regarding the current protections afforded the Florida panther under the Act.
Finally, accepting that all pumas in North America are a single subspecies would not fully address the question as to whether the eastern puma is a listable entity. When a vertebrate animal is found not to be a valid species or subspecies, a determination that it is not a listable entity requires that it further be found not to be a “distinct population segment” (DPS) of a vertebrate species as defined in the Act and in the 1996 Interagency Distinct Population Segment policy (61 FR 4722, February 7, 1996). The eastern puma does not qualify as a DPS because it is extinct (see also our response to comment 5). Extinction, therefore, is the most fundamental basis for delisting, because it is justified whether or not the eastern puma ever constituted a taxonomically listable entity.Start Printed Page 3091
In sum, while the best available scientific information provides some evidence that North American pumas constitute a single subspecies, taxonomic revision awaits full resolution and does not constitute the most fundamental basis for delisting the eastern puma. The best available information also indicates that the entity described as the eastern puma was extirpated throughout its historical range long before its listing, and that this is a primary and sufficiently proven basis for delisting.
We note that the consequences of delisting the eastern puma with regard to Federal protection of dispersing western pumas are the same whether delisting were to be based on extinction or taxonomic error (see our response to comment 3, above). Western pumas dispersing into the historical range of the eastern puma subspecies currently lack protection under the Act and would not receive protection under either delisting scenario. Dispersing western pumas receive, and will continue to receive, those protections afforded by individual States.
(5) Comment: We received comments that the eastern puma should be re-listed as a DPS so that dispersing pumas from western populations could be protected from take under the Act. One person commented that the eastern puma should be re-listed under the significant portion of the range (SPR) provision of the Act.
Our response: Our DPS policy (61 FR 4722, February 7, 1996) requires that, for a population to be determined to be a DPS, it must be discrete, significant, and endangered or threatened. Because we have determined that the eastern puma subspecies no longer exists, it cannot be considered to be currently discrete, significant, and endangered or threatened, and so cannot be a DPS.
The Service’s 2014 SPR policy (79 FR 37577, July 1, 2014) states that listing considerations are based solely on the status of the species in its current range. Regardless of the status of our 2014 SPR policy, the Service maintains this position. Because we have determined that the eastern puma subspecies is extinct—that is, that it does not exist in any part of its range and, therefore, has no current range—it cannot be considered endangered or threatened throughout all of its range or in any portion of its range. Therefore, a continued listing of the eastern puma based on endangered or threatened status within a significant portion of its range is not possible.
(6) Comment: Several reviewers pointed to scientific evidence that populations of eastern pumas still exist, primarily in Canada. Some commented that pumas are nearly impossible to detect and can live in suboptimal habitats (citing Stoner et al. 2006, Stoner et al. 2013a, and Stoner et al. 2013b), and others noted the tens of thousands of eyewitness reports (Glick 2014). Some commented that it is impossible to prove extinction and provided examples of species that have gone undetected for many decades or were thought to be extinct before being rediscovered.
Our response: We addressed many of these points in our 2011 status review. The Service continues to conclude that the best available scientific information, including information published since 2011, supports our finding that breeding populations of pumas no longer exist in Eastern North America outside of Florida. Although there is evidence of individual pumas (not breeding populations), there is no proof whatsoever that any pumas discovered since the 1930s within the eastern puma’s historical range are members of the listed eastern puma subspecies.
Commenters cited Cumberland and Demsey (1994), Cardoza and Langlois (2002), Maehr et al. (2003), Bertrand et al. (2006), Rosatte (2011), Mallory et al. (2012), Lang et al. (2013), and Glick (2014) as corroborating documentation for the occurrence of extant puma populations in eastern Canada. Our review of these sources found that Cumberland and Demsey (1994) documented a single puma (from tracks) in New Brunswick in 1992, concluding that “these data lend little support to the existence of a remnant Eastern Cougar population. It is possible that the animal responsible for the tracks could have been an escaped or released animal.” Bertrand et al. (2006) documented hair samples from two pumas in Fundy National Park in New Brunswick in 2003. One of these was from South America, indicative of an escaped or released pet, and there has been no further evidence confirming the existence of pumas in New Brunswick since 2003. Lang et al. (2013) collected 19 confirmed puma hair samples in eastern Canada from scratching post stations from 2001 to 2012. Several of these samples likely were from the same animal. Two samples were shown to be from the same pumas reported by Bertrand et al. (2006), while six were Central and South American haplotypes (assumed to be released pets), and 10 were of North American origin (whether captive or wild was undetermined). They also evaluated the origin of three known mortalities from 1992 to 2002. One was of South American origin, one was of North American origin (uncertain whether captive origin or wild), and one was of unknown origin. From these data, Lang et al. (2013) concluded that pumas have been present in eastern Canada but provide no confirmation of the existence of the eastern puma or evidence of any breeding population of pumas. Rosatte (2011) documented 21 puma occurrences with a high degree of certainty in Ontario from 1998 to 2010, including 15 confirmed tracks, 1 hair sample consistent with pumas, genetic confirmation of 2 scats, and 3 photographs “consistent with a cougar.” Mallory et al. (2012) collected eight “potential” puma hairs (Sudbury, Ontario) identified by hair scale pattern, and reanalyzed a scat collected in 2004 from Wainfleet, Ontario, and reported in Rosatte (2011). Mallory et al. (2012) reported that trapping records from 1919 to 1984 contained no information on puma pelts sold in Ontario or in eastern Canada except for eight animals sold in Quebec from 1919 to 1920; the origin of these animals (Quebec or western Canada) cannot be confirmed. Finally, Rosatte et al. (2015) documented six additional occurrences in Ontario from 2012 to 2014, including one scat sample (North or South America haplotype not reported), three photographs, one set of tracks, one pregnant female shot (captive origin), and one young male captured (believed to be of captive origin).
Most of these authors (e.g., Cumberland and Demsey 1994, Bertrand et al. 2006, Rosatte 2011, Lang et al. 2013) acknowledge that the pumas reported recently in eastern Canada were most likely escaped or released pets or dispersers from areas supporting extant populations, as we concluded in our 2011 status review. Bertrand et al. (2006) reported that the two pumas documented in New Brunswick could be members of a remnant population, although this conclusion is contradicted by the fact that they recognized one of the two as being of South American origin. Rosatte (2011) believed that pumas may not have been extirpated in Ontario: “In my opinion, the majority of Cougars currently in Ontario are most likely a genetic mixture of escaped/released captives (or their offspring), immigrants (or their offspring), and/or native animals . . . In view of this, at least some native Cougars in Ontario may have survived the decimation of eastern Cougar populations in the 1800s. This would be feasible, given the size of Ontario (area of more than 1 million km2) and the remoteness of the province, especially in the north. However, the presence of Cougars in Ontario between the 1930s and 1980s Start Printed Page 3092may also have been the result of immigration from the west or escaped/released captive animals (Bolgiano and Roberts 2005).” Mallory et al. (2012) indicated that the origin of the pumas in Ontario “remains unclear,” but added, “Nevertheless, sightings of Cougars with kittens and reports of young animals suggest that a breeding population exists in Ontario and adjacent provinces (Wright 1953, Nero and Wrigley 1977, Gerson 1988, Rosatte 2011).” We note that Bertrand et al. (2006), Rosatte (2011), and Mallory et al. (2012) provide no confirmed evidence of adult or lactating female pumas, kittens, or breeding, or of an abundance of confirmed occurrences typically associated with small puma populations such as those occurring in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Florida. Neither do they document any evidence of a continuous presence of pumas in their study areas since the late 1800s.
Given the absence of trapping records and confirmed historical records in eastern Canada since the late 1800s, the best available information points to the extirpation of puma populations in this portion of the eastern puma’s historical range. Areas of Canada most likely to have been historically occupied by eastern pumas (southern Ontario and Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) were extensively trapped and logged, and evidence of a small breeding population would, in all probability, have been noted. With no confirmation of breeding pumas in eastern Canada for many decades, the Service concludes that those puma populations were extirpated. Further, because there is no indication of breeding or the abundant evidence of presence typically associated with small, reproducing populations, the Service concludes that the individual pumas occasionally found in Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States (outside Florida) are escaped or released pets or animals that have dispersed from western populations (or, rarely, Florida); refer to Comment 16 below for more detail).
One commenter mistakenly indicated that, among other investigators, Cardoza and Langlois (2002) and Maehr et al. (2003) provide substantial scientific evidence that eastern pumas continue to exist. On the contrary, Cardoza and Langlois (2002) shared skepticism of the plethora of anecdotal reports and sightings, concluding that “the search for cougars in the East must be conducted as a scientific endeavor.” They encouraged the Service to delist the eastern puma if it is extinct or re-list it as a DPS if any populations exist. If the subspecies were to remain listed, they encouraged the Service to revise the recovery plan, because “agencies have failed to meet the objective of . . . having found or established . . .” at least three self-sustaining populations. Maehr et al. (2003) called for recovery of pumas in Eastern North America but provided no documentation of a persistent population outside of Florida.
(7) Comment: We received several comments stating that pumas are wary and cryptic and could possibly escape detection for many years (citing Stoner et al. 2006, 2013).
Our response: Using data on puma harvests in Utah, Stoner et al. (2013) predicted that remote habitats are more likely to harbor relict populations of pumas, regardless of habitat quality, when range contractions are caused by humans. That is, pumas faced with human-induced range contraction were more likely to recede along a gradient determined by human population density rather than habitat quality; thus, remote, low-quality habitats may have greater refugia value to pumas.
Puma refugia in western North America are often characterized by remote, steep, mountainous terrain with little infrastructure for human access and relatively low ungulate populations (Stoner et al. 2013). In contrast, potential refugia for pumas in Eastern North America (e.g., Laundre 2013, Glick 2014, O’Neil et al. 2014) are neither mountainous nor remote, are readily accessible and continue to be heavily used by humans, and exist in a landscape having much higher human density (Glick 2014). Observing that small puma populations in refugia in Florida, Nebraska, and the Dakotas leave ample evidence of their presence (USFWS 2011, pp. 42-43), we infer that any remnant population of pumas persisting in Eastern North America outside Florida would have left a more or less continuous record of credible evidence since the late 1800s (e.g., pumas trapped and shot, road mortalities, carcasses, tracks, and/or photographs). Although one person commented that species can go many decades without being sighted, or can be thought extinct before being rediscovered (so-called “Lazarus species”), we received no comments providing scientific data indicating that a small, breeding population of pumas exists, only conjecture that they mayexist. We agree that the historical record and the best available scientific information presented in our 2011 status review, along with scientific articles published since then, provide evidence that individual pumas (of captive origin or dispersing animals) are encountered with increasing frequency in Eastern North America. Nonetheless, there is no available scientific information, nor has any evidence been provided in comments on the proposed rule, that a breeding population of pumas has persisted in Eastern North America anywhere other than Florida.
(8) Comment: Some commenters maintained that delisting a species based on extinction requires absolute certainty that it is gone, while one reviewer requested that the Service document extinction using valid statistical methods with appropriate statistical power. The same reviewer stated that we must clearly demonstrate that the eastern puma subspecies is extinct according to government regulations at 50 CFR 424.11(d)(3).
Our response: Proving whether a taxon is extant or extinct presents a dilemma for conservation biologists (Diamond 1987). With regard to delisting on the basis of extinction, the Act’s implementing regulations at 50 CFR 424.11(d) describe the burden of proof: “Unless all individuals of the listed species had been previously identified and located, and were later found to be extirpated from their previous range, a sufficient period of time must be allowed before delisting to indicate clearly that the species is extinct.”
The IUCN Standards and Petitions Subcommittee (IUCN 2014) has established criteria to track the conservation status of species, and it is instructive to consider those criteria here. The “extinct” category is used by the IUCN when there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the last individual of a taxon has died, recognizing that this is extremely difficult to detect. The IUCN designates a taxon as extinct only after adequate surveys have failed to record the species and local or unconfirmed reports have been investigated and discounted. Relevant types of evidence supporting an IUCN designation of extinct include the following (Butchart et al. 2006):
- For species with recent last records, the decline has been well documented;
- Severe threatening processes are known to have occurred (e.g., extensive habitat loss, the spread of alien invasive predators, intensive hunting); and
- The species possesses attributes known to predispose taxa to extinction (e.g.,flightlessness for birds).
Such evidence should be balanced against the following opposing considerations (Butchart et al. 2006):
- Recent field work has been inadequate (surveys have been insufficiently intensive/extensive or inappropriately timed, or the species’ range is inaccessible, remote, unsafe, or inadequately known);Start Printed Page 3093
- The species is difficult to detect (it is cryptic, inconspicuous, nocturnal, nomadic, or silent, or its vocalizations are unknown, identification is difficult, or the species occurs at low densities);
- There have been reasonably convincing recent local reports or unconfirmed sightings; and
- Suitable habitat (free of introduced predators and pathogens, if relevant) remains within the species’ known range, and/or allospecies or congeners may survive despite similar threatening processes.
The IUCN has not issued a determination that the eastern puma subspecies, P.c. couguar, is extinct, because they have accepted that all pumas in North America constitute one subspecies that is extant in Florida and western North America. However, the IUCN standards for extinction have been met for the eastern puma.
Many decades have passed since documentation of the last credible eastern puma records, which are contained in the scientific literature and are documented for each State and province within the eastern puma’s historical range in our 2011 status review. In addition, severe threats (indiscriminate shooting, trapping, poisoning, deforestation, and extirpation of ungulate prey in much of the range) were evident at the time eastern puma populations were extirpated. Further, pumas are prone to extirpation because of their relatively small population sizes and low population densities, large habitat area requirements, and relatively slow population growth traits (Purvis et al. 2000).
Service-sponsored surveys in the early 1980s in the southern (Downing 1994a, 1994b) and northern (Brocke and VanDyke 1985) parts of the eastern puma’s historical range failed to detect any pumas, noting that while difficulty of detection may be expected in the South, it should not be particularly difficult to detect pumas in the North, where there is snow. Our 2011 review also describes numerous other wildlife surveys that did not detect a breeding population of pumas in Eastern North America outside of Florida, and negative survey data are available for many portions of the historical range that still have intact habitat. Despite suggestions that we conduct further surveys, we are not aware of areas within the historical range of the eastern puma with enough evidence of a breeding population to merit the additional effort.
In our 2011 status review, we acknowledged the thousands of reported puma sightings while noting that 90 to 95 percent of these sightings have been shown to be invalid (Brocke 1981, Downing 1984, Hamilton 2006); these invalid reports have generally involved instances of misidentification and, at times, deliberate hoaxes. With respect to increasing frequency of confirmed puma sightings in recent years, we recognize that suitable habitat is available within the historical range of the eastern puma (see our response to comment 3, above), that past threats have been largely eliminated (with some level of protection for dispersing pumas), and that, according to some biologists, western pumas will continue to expand their range eastward (e.g., LaRue and Nielsen 2015).
There is no regulatory requirement for the Service to conduct statistical analyses in order to draw conclusions about extinction. Both our 2011 status review and our review of scientific information that has become available since then point to overwhelming evidence that the eastern puma subspecies is extinct (see also our earlier responses to comments 2, 7, and 10). Given that the last eastern pumas that were assumed to have existed were killed in Maine (1938) and New Brunswick (1932), the preponderance of scientific evidence fully supports our conclusion that breeding populations of pumas in Eastern North America outside of Florida and, until recent decades, Manitoba have been absent for at least the past 80 years, and that pumas recently sighted within the historical range of the eastern puma are escaped or released pets and western (and, rarely, Florida) dispersers. This conclusion and our use of the best available scientific information were sustained by peer reviewers (see comment 20, below).