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March 8, 2011

Catamount extinct? DHS followers say no way

After more than 35 years on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list, officials say the catamount is now extinct.

The catamount serves as the mascot for Dalton High School athletics, and the cougar is the mascot for the school system’s middle school. The eastern cougar — which goes by the name catamount, mountain lion, puma and ghost cat, among others — has been on the endangered species list since 1973, but a recent review by the Wildlife Service concluded it has disappeared from its natural habitat and recommended that the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list.

But don’t tell that to the students and teachers at Dalton High School.

“We don’t have a problem of finding Catamounts here at the high school,” science teacher Cheryl Suits said. “The Cats around here are thriving.”

Dalton High School’s Lady Catamounts basketball team will play on Friday at 4 p.m. in Macon in the Georgia High School Association’s Class 3A state basketball semifinals. The state championship game will be played on Saturday at the Macon Centreplex at 7 p.m.

“It is a sad situation,” said Suits, who is married to Dalton Middle School Principal Brian Suits, of the declaration by the Wildlife Service. “Everything has its niche in the environment, and we need the catamounts to balance the population of rodents and keep everything in check. We’ve taken their habitat up and down the East Coast. Everything we humans do has an impact on the environment.”

Fans of the DHS Catamounts were surprised to hear the inspiration for the school’s mascot is no more.

“They look like they are alive and well to me,” Dalton Middle School eighth-grade math teacher Jennifer Sumner said while watching her son Tucker playing baseball for the Cougars against Ringgold at Heritage Park on Monday afternoon.

Leon Behr, whose daughter Taylor plays for the Lady Catamounts basketball team, was tongue-in-cheek with his response when asked about the disappearance of the catamount. Standing beside Sam O’Brien at Dalton High School’s baseball field watching O’Brien’s son Michael playing against rival Northwest Whitfield, Behr was quick to point out that Catamounts can be found all over Whitfield County.

“Elvis isn’t dead either,” Behr said. “No matter what they say, the Cat is thriving here.”

“The government hasn’t done anything right lately,” O’Brien laughed. “It was probably like the last census. They probably just didn’t count right.”

 While there are frequent sightings of wild cat populations throughout the Appalachian Mountain chain from Georgia to Maine, scientists said reports of cougars in the recent survey were cougars of another subspecies — often the South American species — that had been held in captivity and had escaped or been released, and western cougars that had migrated to the east. According to Mark McCollough, the Wildlife Service’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar, the subspecies has likely been extinct since the 1930s.

“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” said Martin Miller, the Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species for the Wildlife Service, in a press release last week. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”

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