Cougar in North America, between protection and illegal hunting



by LORENZO CIOTTI

Cougar in North America, between protection and illegal hunting

The cougar was previously widespread throughout North and South America. No other mammal on the continent had such a vast distribution; it stretched from southern Canada through Central America to southern Patagonia. Nowadays its diffusion is severely limited and reduced to uninhabited areas or sparsely populated by man.

In the United States, pumas have survived waves of extermination only in the Rocky Mountains, in the deserts and semi-deserts of the southwest, and in the swampy regions of the Everglades in Florida. Through protectionist measures, its territory has again expanded, and in some regions west of the United States, pumas no longer even avoid the neighborhoods of cities.

Ecologically speaking, the puma can be considered the American equivalent of the leopard, and like the latter it is capable of adapting in almost all the habitats of its vast range; the prairie, the boreal, temperate and tropical forests, the semi-desert and the high mountains are all part of the living spaces of this feline.

Only the Arctic tundra and actual deserts turn out to be too hostile habitats. After being hunted almost to extinction in the United States, the puma has made a considerable reappearance, with an estimated 30,000 individuals in the western United States.

In Canada, pumas are found west of the prairies, in Alberta, British Columbia and the southern Yukon. The highest concentration of pumas in North America is found on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Cougars are gradually extending their territory eastward, following streams and riverbeds, and have reached Missouri, Michigan and crossed Kansas, including the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.

Cougars were spotted on the northern shore of Lake Superior with an attack on a horse in Ely, Minnesota in 2004. They are expected to expand their territory over the entire eastern and southern United States soon. There continue to be reports of the survival of the remaining eastern puma population in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula.

Due to the urbanization of rural areas, pumas often come into contact with people, especially in areas with large populations of deer, their natural prey. They have also begun to hunt domestic animals such as dogs, cats and livestock, but have rarely resorted to humans as a food source.

The roughly 1990 estimate numbered between 4,000 and 6,000 pumas in California and between 4,500 and 5,000 in Colorado. In the latest research carried out in March 2011, the cougar was declared extinct from the eastern United States, as a result of the lack of sightings since the 1930s.

Although protected, the puma is nevertheless hunted by some farmers, worried about their livestock. The species as a whole, however, is not considered endangered. The cougar usually flees the man. Only in exceptional cases does it attack adults.

The cougar was highly respected by American Indians. Qualities such as leadership, strength, ingenuity, loyalty, commitment and courage were attributed to him. Colonizers in North America have long hunted the puma, not only to protect their livestock from this animal, but also because they aspired to its trophy.

A North American people, the erie, perhaps derives its name from the puma, which is considered an abbreviation of erielhonan. For this reason they were also called by the French Nation du Chat, people of the cat.