Image: USFWS

Although fierce creatures in their own right, North America's big cats are no match for the hunting and habitat destruction that are threatening their survival. Indeed, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), these formerly widespread felines are barely hanging on. Furthermore, as top predators, their disappearance leaves behind imbalanced and vulnerable ecosystems.

The Florida panther (right) is the most endangered of the continent's cats. Whereas it once roamed in large numbers throughout the eastern woodlands, today only 60 adults survive, restricted to southernmost Florida. Other vanishing felines include ocelots, cougars, jaguars and Canada lynx. As a result, populations of deer and other animals whose numbers used to be kept in check by the cats have swelled, causing problems ranging from vegetation depletion to traffic accidents.

"Humans have rapidly populated and developed many areas of the continent, destroying natural areas to build roads and cities, converting wild lands for agriculture and grazing, and degrading habitats to extract natural resources," NWF president Mark Van Putten writes in the report. "Fear and intolerance, the sentiments that fueled historic predator extermination programs, still complicate efforts to conserve North America's wildcats and to find solutions that accommodate both wildlife and human needs."