Report highlights wild cats demise across the continent

From the forests of eastern Canada to the scrublands of Mexico, wild cats which were once prevalent are now restricted to small fractions of their original ranges, despite protection by law in one or more countries, a new report says.

Endangered Cats of North America, compiled by one of the US’s biggest conservation groups, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), highlights the disappearance of wild cats across the continent. Cougars have been virtually eliminated from the eastern United States and Canada; the eastern cougar is presumed extinct; ocelots, jaguarundis and jaguars have declined; and Canada lynx are now rare in the southern parts of their historic range, the report says. Even bobcats, which still range across most of the United States, have suffered local declines and extirpations in some areas, while some felines like the Florida panther have been pushed to the very brink of extinction. With roughly 60 adult panthers still surviving in the wild, the Florida panther is the most immediately endangered of North America’s remaining cats.

According to the report, habitat loss, due to a variety of human activities, is now the single greatest threat to the survival of North America’s cats, with exploitation from the fur trade, another factor. Destruction of habitat, especially through road building, often isolates cat populations, leading to genetic problems through inbreeding, competition for territory, and ultimately extinction.

The disappearance of these predators also leads to overpopulation and the decline of other species that share their habitats. The loss of cougars and other felines in the eastern US has contributed to the exploding numbers of white-tailed deer in that region, leading to problems such as vegetation depletion and traffic accidents, the report says. Elimination of dominant carnivores can also lead to disproportionate populations of small and mid-sized carnivores such as raccoons, opossum, and skunks.

NWF says that although many acres of wild lands have been degraded or destroyed in the US, Canada and Mexico, important areas still do support cats, which need to be better protected. In areas like Florida, Texas and California, where native habitat has been greatly reduced, conservation efforts must focus on preserving what little native land is left and then protecting additional wilderness areas. In some cases, reintroducing cats to former habitat areas is critical to their recovery. Successful reintroductions will depend on adequate public education and conservation efforts in both present and historic cat habitat, NWF says. Because a significant portion of cat habitat in the US, Canada and Mexico is privately owned, addressing the needs and concerns of private landowners will also be essential to successful conservation of endangered cats.

The report identifies several “essential actions that are critical to helping North America’s cats toward recovery”, including:

  • the incorporation of habitat protection and wildlife-corridor protection into development and transportation plans, including wildlife culverts, bridges and underpasses on both new and existing roads with the public opposing road alignments that directly threaten cat populations;
  • an increase in public awareness about North America’s endangered cats and their conservation needs and how they can co-exist peacefully with man, in order to prevent fear and misunderstanding of cats which still complicate efforts to conserve them;
  • the adoption of pro-active, conservation-based approaches to the management of cats that are currently less endangered;
  • cross-border protection and habitat conservation for cats through national legislation, collaborative research and cooperative international efforts; and
  • an increase in funding and research for in-depth studies of feline conservation needs.

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