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.