A couple hundred years ago, cougars roamed nearly every corner of North America. Today, though, their domain is much smaller, which may lead you to wonder if their numbers are dwindling. Are cougars endangered, and if so, why? What protective measures are in place to keep them from going extinct? In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions.
What You'll Learn Today
Are Cougars a Protected Species?
In the United States, there is no federal protection for cougar subspecies that aren’t endangered. Protective measures for cougars are determined on a state by state basis, and the laws in place vary widely because of differing needs and priorities.
Cougars are mostly found in western North America, though isolated sightings are becoming more common throughout the midwest, as well as some eastern states and provinces. This is likely due to the fact that cougars have a large range and may be coming from the west in search of new territories.
That said, protective laws for cougars are going to be different in Michigan than they are in Oregon because there are a lot fewer cougars in Michigan.
Political and social atmospheres may also influence state laws. For example, cougars are far more protected in California than in Texas, though both states have native populations of cougars.
That said, most states with active cougar populations do have limited protective measures in place. Even in states where hunting cougars is legal, there are almost always hunting laws and reporting requirements governing the practice.
To learn more about specific state laws regarding cougars, check out The Cougar Fund.
Are Cougars Endangered in the United States and Canada?
As a species, cougars are not considered endangered. Though their range is not quite as large as it used to be, cougars as a whole are doing well and can be found throughout North and South America.
However, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Cougars are divided into subspecies based on their location and minor genetic differences. There are about 30 subspecies of cougar in total, two of which are considered endangered: the Florida Panther and the Costa Rican Puma.
Check out the following video to learn more about some of the cougar subspecies:
While some insist that cougar subspecies are unique and genetically different creatures, a growing number of scientists argue that the genetic differences are negligible at best and hardly worth considering. In other words, they claim that a cougar is a cougar regardless of its scientific classification.
Why is this significant?
The Florida Panthers were very close to extinction in the 1970s, with only about 20 of them remaining in the wild. A few Texas Mountain Lions were introduced into the Panther territory, where they subsequently crossbred and increased their numbers significantly.
While still an endangered subspecies, the Florida Panthers are not currently in grave danger of extinction. But, some would argue, they are no longer “purebred” Florida Panthers, since they crossbred with another species.
Whether or not this matters scientifically, the fact is that there’s a far greater number of cougars in Florida now than there was in the 1970s. Theoretically, the same thing could happen elsewhere – if the cougar population grows slim in one area, more cougars could be relocated to the area to help boost the population.
All the subspecies of cougar are overwhelmingly similar, so even if one subspecies becomes endangered, there is little chance that cougars as a whole will meet the same fate.
This begs another question though: if all cougars are highly adaptable and genetically similar, why are some endangered while others are not?
Why Are Some Cougars Endangered?
In the early 1900s, cougars were treated much as other predatory animals – they were hunted and killed because they were killing livestock. At this time, they were found throughout the United States and Canada, not just in the west.
The extermination efforts pushed the vast majority of cougars further and further west until they were completely removed from many eastern and central regions. The Eastern Cougar subspecies was even classified extinct as of 2011.
Currently, breeding cougars are found in only 16 states, though sightings in other states are becoming more common.
Today, according to the University of Minnesota Duluth, the main reason for cougar death is hunting. Cougars may be legally hunted in 13 of the 16 states where they are considered native.
Again though, in most regions of the U.S. and Canada, cougars are not endangered at this time. They are resilient creatures that can adapt to a wide range of habitats and will move from place to place if need be.
Cougar protection laws vary widely from state to state, but cougars are generally considered a protected species. There are currently only two subspecies of cougar that are considered endangered.
As a whole, cougars are unlikely to become endangered due to their adaptability and the protective laws in place.