In writing about this on Cryptomundo, Loren Coleman expressed his thought that the ruling was politically motivated - the FWS didn't want to expend the resources on the Eastern cougar.
Loren wrote, “All future sightings of large, tan, deer-colored felids in the Eastern USA now will again exist in that shadowy zoological limbo occupied by the Ivory-billed woodpecker and Bigfoot.”
My thoughts in response:
Well, not exactly. This case is different because the FWS is not declaring all sightings invalid. They are saying that validated sightings are of cougars from sources other than the original Eastern subspecies stock.
Of course, a fair question is, “If a sighting is valid but the cat is not caught, how can anyone be sure where said cat came from?”
The FWS answer is essentially that breeding populations would have left more evidence than we now have. That brings up a couple of complications. One is that the cat is notoriously elusive, and I wonder just how sure the FWS can be. The other, as someone pointed out on Facebook, is that it may not matter: if escaped, released, or wandering cougars establish a population, then you still have a population of a protected animal and must regulate it (although you don’t have a population of an ENDANGERED animal, which is where politics come in since the latter must be protected and regulated much more extensively.)
The politics do exist. I’ve reported before how a friend of mine, an excellent witness who knew his bears, reported literally bumping into an unmistakable grizzly bear in Colorado and was told very frankly by a state wildlife person that it would be a huge headache – for the agency, for hunters, and for landowners – if he insisted on his story. (He gave up.)
And just to complete the maze of complexity here, if you do find a breeding population, how sure can you be they are NOT original Eastern cougars? The genetic differences between the three Continental US cougar populations are minimal – some argue nonexistant.
Given that it’s established there have been SOME releases/escapes, and some Western cougars pushing east of the Mississippi, I don’t think we’ll ever know if genuine Eastern cougars have survived. I think they have, but how could it ever be proven?
Finally, I wonder if the FWS experts, while no one expressed the thought, had an unconscious bias based on the fact this was not the ivory-billed woodpecker: this was a local population, really, of an animal doing very well elsewhere on this continent. If it wasn't clear whether the subspecies identification of cougars is valid in the first place, did it matter to the survival of the species whether they found any genuine Eastern cougars?