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Wildcats losing ground in battle for survival in U.S.

According to a report from the National Wildlife Federation, the Florida panther is losing its battle for survival in the United States.
According to a report from the National Wildlife Federation, the Florida panther is losing its battle for survival in the United States.

The Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) has been listed as endangered since 1967. Once at home from eastern Texas and the lower Mississippi River Valley through the southeastern states, only about 6O adult panthers remain in the United States, all hidden in undeveloped patches of Florida.

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) has been listed as endangered in the United States since 1972 and is also endangered in Mexico. Its historic range took in Arizona and Texas, south to Central and South America. Ocelots once prowled the dense, chaparral thickets of southern and eastern Texas and the Gulf Coast. Today they are found in a few small areas in southern Texas and are extirpated in Arizona.

A new report from the National Wildlife Federation notes that not only panthers and ocelots but all wildcats are vanishing from the United States, Mexico and Canada. Left behind are natural ecosystems that are "imbalanced and vulnerable."

The imbalances that remain when these top predators disappear are overpopulation and declines among other species that share their habitat, says Elizabeth Murdock, chief author of the report.

The eastern cougar, also called the puma (Felis concolor cougar), has been all but eliminated from the eastern United States and Canada and is presumed extinct, the National Wildlife Federation says.

Cougars once ranged from eastern Canada southward into Tennessee and South Carolina, where their range merged with that of the Florida panther. "The remaining population of this species is extremely small; exact numbers are unknown," the Fish and Wildlife Service reports.

The loss of cougars and other felines in the eastern United States has likely contributed to exploding numbers of white-tailed deer, Murdock says, resulting in everything from vegetation depletion to traffic accidents. Elimination of dominant carnivores can also lead to large populations of small and mid-size carnivores such as raccoons, opossums and skunks.


The ocelot has been listed as endangered in the United States since 1972. The wildcat is also endangered in Mexico.
"Conserving North America's cats is integral to protecting the continent's wildlife heritage and to saving many of the pristine wild places they call home," Murdock says.

Canada lynx are now rare in the southern parts of their historic range, although they still survive in western Canada. Even bobcats, which still range across most of the United States, have suffered local declines and extirpations in some areas.

The largest species of cat native to the Western Hemisphere, the jaguar (Panthera onca), was listed as endangered in the United States in 1997. It is also listed as endangered in Mexico and Central and South America. Only a few jaguars are surviving in the United States. "The presence of the species in the United States is believed to be dependent on the status of the jaguar in northern Mexico. Documented observations are as recent as 1996. Critical habitat was found to not be prudent and therefore is not being designated," the Fish and Wildlife Service noted in its final rule declaring the species endangered.

Habitat loss is the single greatest factor in their decline, but American wildcats have died as a result of predator control programs and traps set to serve the fur trade, Murdock notes.

"Roads pose a significant threat to wild cats because they not only place individual cats at risk, but they isolate cats into fragments of habitat, which can lead to inbreeding and territorial competition between cats," she says.

The wildcat report, part of the National Wildlife Federation's Keep the Wild Alive campaign, grew out of an international workshop sponsored by the federation in February 2000. It concludes that conservation of the few areas where wildcats remain is vital to keep them from extinction.

In some cases, such as that of the Canada lynx in Colorado, reintroducing cats to former habitat is crucial to their recovery. Successful reintroductions will depend on adequate public education and conservation efforts. Because much cat habitat in the U.S., Canada and Mexico is privately owned, addressing the needs and concerns of private landowners is essential to successful conservation of endangered cats, the federation emphasizes.

Murdock says it is important to incorporate habitat and wildlife corridor protection into development and transportation plans. This should include wildlife culverts, bridges and underpasses on new and existing roads, and no road alignments should be planned that directly threaten cat populations, she warns.

The federation is working toward cross-border protection and habitat conservation for cats through national legislation, collaborative research and cooperative international efforts.

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