Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the decision to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, officially declaring the big cats extinct eight decades after the last confirmed sighting of one in 1938.
The eastern cougar population was once widespread throughout states east of the Mississippi River; however, a deadly combination of long-standing anthropogenic factors, such as water, air, and land pollution, hunting, trapping, poison, hunting and bounty programs, and loss of habitat, has contributed to the species’ rapid decline over the years. Not only were these environmental hazards decimating the eastern cougar population, but they were also wiping out the cougars’ main source of food: the white-tailed deer, which was also federally recognized as endangered by the Endangered Species Act of 1978. As the number of white-tailed deer dwindled, even the cougars that managed to evade hunting and trapping faced certain death by starvation; the cougars’ survival greatly depended upon the population of deer in the area, highlighting the vital roles a single species can play in the stability of an ecosystem and food web.
The extinction of any species poses a serious threat not only to the balance of their ecosystem and the complex food webs within it, but also to other ecosystems on a much larger scale. For example, the mass extermination campaign of gray wolves in the U.S. during the 20th century not only decimated the gray wolf population, but also had hugely negative impacts on other species as well. Without the gray wolves to keep prey populations in check, the elk populations in the western U.S. skyrocketed, resulting in an expeditious plummet in willow and other riparian plant numbers. Consequently, songbirds in the area no longer had sufficient food and shelter to reproduce and their numbers fell dramatically as well; this, in turn, allowed for a significant rise in insect populations. This domino effect continued, prompting conservationist groups to eventually take action and work to restore gray wolf populations in the U.S. To summarize, the disappearance of any species engenders a whole slew of negative, long-lasting effects on our environment and its biodiversity. In the case of eastern cougars, these large carnivores were especially necessary to curb the overpopulation of prey species and tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease and babesiosis in eastern states. Hence, their extinction is most troubling.
Although the eastern cougar has been declared extinct, there is still hope for several other species. Currently, there are over a hundred diverse species present on the endangered species list compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a global, environmental and wildlife conservation organization. Despite their and other conservation groups’ efforts to protect and restore these animals and their habitats, many of these endangered species on the list have been recognized as critically endangered or highly vulnerable for several decades. Their time is running out. It is imperative for the stability of global ecosystems that we learn from the unfortunate extinction of the eastern cougar and other species and work harder than ever towards protecting rather than hunting and restoration rather than encroachment. To learn more about conservation and how you can make a difference, try visiting https://www.worldwildlife.org/ and https://www.fws.gov/humancapital/ .