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3Qs: The case of the misclassified cat

Photo: Dreamstime

According to news reports, scientists discovered last month that the Eastern cougar, which was previously said to be extinct by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, might not be at all. They suspect that the cougar may have been misclassified as a sub-species, and that there is no significant difference between Eastern and Western cougars, other than its geographical range. Biology professor Gwilym Jones explains how species are declared extinct and the dangers of misclassifying species.

What are the criteria for a species to be declared endangered or extinct?

The criterion for endangerment, by definition, is quite simple — in imminent danger of becoming extinct and no longer in existence. This is supported by exhaustive survey data and is subject to public review and hearings. It is also based on the biology of the animal — reproductive biology, condition of its habitat, population size relative to the calculated critical minimum number, and so on.
At the federal level the status is promulgated by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In Massachusetts, it is determined by the Fisheries and Wildlife Board of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The Massachusetts board has regulatory authority, but bases its conclusions on the findings of its biologists and in consideration of testimony at public hearings.  A species listed as endangered by the federal government is also listed as endangered in Massachusetts; its listing can only be the same or more stringent than the federal listing — for example, threatened (in imminent danger of becoming endangered) at the federal level but endangered in Massachusetts.

In what other ways can endangered species be protected?

Through public relations programs, public perception can increase awareness of the endangered status of a species, thus helping to protect it through the good will of the people.
Also, the threat of punishment, through incarceration or a fine, to deter “take” can increase protection. “Take” is generally considered to be the killing, possession or harassment of a species.

What are the dangers of misclassifying a species?

The protection of a species rated as endangered, but which is not, could result in an outlay of funds and management effort that could be directed to other truly endangered species.
Further, if a species is endangered but not officially categorized as such, it may well go extinct due to a variety of factors, including habitat destruction.