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Is the Eastern cougar really extinct?

Posted Tuesday, March 8, 2011, at 2:51 PM

I took this photo on a recent trip to south Florida. You see these signs quite often in the "outback" region of the state, where tall fences keep the wildlife off the highways. Every few miles, there will be a culvert, where the animals--particularly the mountain lions--can cross under the highway. The signs are a bit misleading, as there are no black panthers--but, then, there are no black deer, either, and those signs are similar.
On a recent trip to Florida, I found myself taking pictures of SIGNS. This isn't unusual, as everywhere I go--Florida, Europe--I'm fascinated by the signs. In England, the phrase is, "Mind the gap," referring to the gap between the subway ("tube") door and the platform. Another popular favorite is "Way Out," which means "Exit." In France at the palace of Versailles, the sign to look for is "Sortie," another word for "Exit."

In Florida, two signs fascinated me--"Please do not feed the alligators" and "Panther crossing." Naturally, I kept my eyes peeled in the wild regions for any sign of a panther, but there were none. Unlike the ever-present alligators (who even show up on your dinner plate), the Florida panther is truly the "ghost cat" of legend.

Small wonder--I later found out, in researching this topic, that there are only an estimated 100 or so Florida panthers (also known as mountain lions or cougars) left.

That's more than there are in the rest of the U.S. On March 2, 2011 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar to be extinct, "confirming a widely held belief among wildlife biologists that native populations of the big cat were wiped out by man a century ago."

The topic of cougars has cropped up on my blogs a number of times. Over the years, I've reported sightings by local residents near Advance. One night, several years ago, my own daughter, a biology major and Duck Creek intern, reported seeing a mountain lion run across Highway C just west of Advance. She had a clear view in the headlights of her car--tawny yellow color, long tail, huge size.

Back in 2007, I posted a blog on the subject, when I received a video of a big cat walking in the lot across from Town and Country on Highway 25. An Advance police officer filmed the animal, but we were unable to enlarge the video to get a clear still shot.

Local conservation agents have been the subject of derision, when they suggest that all local reports mistakenly confuse cougars with yellow labs--thus our occasional reference to "vicious, feral yellow labs."

In doing the research, I ran across a photo of a man standing beside a smallish stuffed cougar, which was labeled, "the last known Eastern Cougar, killed in 1938."

Further reading led me to believe that the random sightings of cougars since that time are considered to be western cougars, a different variation.

The Florida panther (animal--not sports team) is confined to the southern part of the state, where it is endangered. The Conservation Service tries to avoid panther-vehicle confrontations by building fences such as the one in the photo above, but these fences are only partially effective. If the panthers will follow instructions and cross where they're supposed to cross (through the metal culverts under the highway), they can stay safe. However, this year about ten of them did not read the signs and tried to cross where there were no fences. At that point, they become road kill.

There is some talk about re-introducing the cougar into its former habitat in the eastern United States, but I find this a futile and probably foolish idea.

The beautiful, dangerous creatures don't even have enough room in Florida, where they cling tenaciously to life, trying to find a secluded place in a noisy human society. Each year, more land is gobbled up by developers, as the elder population of the U.S. seeks the forever-summer of the sunny south.

According to one online documentary, most of the cougars run over on the highways are young males, trying to find a territory they can call their own.

I am sad to think it, but I feel that within as little as fifty years, the Florida panther will only exist on the football field. The beautiful, elusive wild "ghost cat" of America will truly become a ghost, haunting our memories and imaginations but dead to the forests of our country.

From the remote hills of Tillman, where an occasional mountain lion prowls in lonely seclusion, this is your rural reporter, Madeline, consoling herself by writing about that exotic peninsula that juts out into the sunny Gulf of Mexico.

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Interesting article, thanks for sharing. When I was in Florida in 2010 I was certain I had seen a panther on the road to Imokalee.

-- Posted by Dexterite1 on Tue, Mar 8, 2011, at 8:02 PM

I'm pretty sure we've had cougars out here in the country where I live. In fact, one local resident has a cougar on his sport camera. However, I have no idea if the cougars are in breeding pairs.

Sad to think that such a beautiful creature can't co-exist with man.

-- Posted by goat lady on Tue, Mar 8, 2011, at 8:59 PM

Perhaps a panther is the source of the unidentified noises around Tillman, MO! My husband's grandparents lived near Aide, and they reported hearing and seeing panthers in that area. I have yet to see one Florida, though I know folks who have. There are black bears spotted locally and in our forests. There are also signs warning of their teriitories. Did you see those?

-- Posted by GONENOW on Wed, Mar 9, 2011, at 7:15 AM

Once, when I was in Florida, I saw a trooper and a conservation agent who appeared to have pulled over a motorist, but there was a large, brown, crumpled animal lying dead behind the motorist's car. I got the distinct impression that the animal was a bear. I can't explain the brown color, however, as most "local" bears are black. It never occured to me that it could have been a panther.

-- Posted by goat lady on Wed, Mar 9, 2011, at 4:22 PM

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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net.
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