|This Dept. of the Interior photo of a cougar straddling a deer|
in California gives a good sense of the size of the animal.
North American cougars - also known as pumas, catamounts and mountain lions - are actually the same species. The Eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) is the currently recognized subspecies that was historically found in the northeast U.S.
Eastern cougars typically have a little smaller heads than those found in the West, but are very similar to cougars in the western U.S.
The cougar has the largest range of any wild land animal in the Americas. They span from the Yukon Territory in Canada to the southern Andes in Chile. Officially, this species was extirpated from eastern North America, aside from Florida. But fish and wildlife officials have said that they may be recolonizing their former range in the northeast. Isolated populations have been documented east of their contemporary ranges in both the US and Canada
The cougar is a hypercarnivore that prefers large mammals such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, mountain goat and bighorn sheep, but they opportunistically take smaller prey such as rodents, rabbits and hares, smaller carnivores, birds and even domestic animals including pets.
|Cougar front paw track in snow|
Mark Dowling, co-founder of the Eastern Cougar Network, had at one time said that Eastern cougar sightings in the northeast were not real, but the situation has changed since that time. Eastern Cougar Network collects and disseminates data on the shifting mountain lion population. In an article provocatively titled "Mountain Lions Headed for Atlantic City?" Dowling said in 2003 that sightings in the eastern half of the nation were "almost certainly" escaped captives, but he added that the notion that (western) cougars "will eventually reach New Jersey" is a reasonable prediction, in part due to increased populations of white-tailed deer.
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in nearby New York states that "Eastern cougars (mountain lions) do not have a native, self-sustaining population in New York State. They have been absent from this state since the late 1800s."
However, they do say that there have been a few isolated sightings, but each sighting involved cougars that are not native to New York. A couple of sightings involved captive mountain lions that escaped from licensed facilities in the state, and another sighting involved a wild cougar that traveled through New York as it made its way nearly 1,800 miles east from its native population in South Dakota.
As with other states, the DEC gets many reports that are misidentification so their staff will only investigate reports where physical evidence of tracks, scat, or hair exist; or when a captive animal has been reported to have escaped. Most of the reports are cases of mistaken identity of other animals. Cougars are commonly mistaken for bobcats, fishers and coyotes, as well as domestic housecats and dogs.
In 2011, the USFWS opened an extensive review into the status of the eastern cougar and four years later they determined the eastern cougar no longer warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. In January 2018 the de-listing became final and they were officially declared extinct.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "The eastern cougar was extinct well before it was protected under the Endangered Species Act, as was the case with eight of the other ten species that have been de-listed for extinction."
So, the chances of you encountering a cougar in the wild here in New Jersey seem to be extremely rare. if not impossible. But you might encounter one in another state, particularly in the western U.S. This warning sign is from California. It reads very much like the advice we have in NJ for encountering a bear. Hopefully, you would have the presence of mind to "be large, shout and fight back."
|click images to enlarge|