BLACKSTONE, Va. - Like some other residents of this small town, Mary Elizabeth Goodwyn doesn't go outside after dark much anymore.
Goodwyn, 81, used to welcome the dusk under a red maple tree in her front yard every evening, but that was before cougars started showing up in Blackstone — at least in the local newspaper.
Since 2003, the Courier-Record has run at least 15 stories on cougar sightings in town and in the neighboring 41,000-acre Army National Guard training base.
Wildlife officials say that except for a known population of 100 in Florida, the large cats — also called mountain lions, pumas, panthers and the fitting "ghost cats" — were wiped out in the eastern United States by 1900. They claim sightings most likely are cases of mistaken identity — perhaps a bobcat, deer or even a Labrador retriever.
"The sense I get is there are a number of game commission people laughing, and that bothers me a bit because we've got good people here who aren't crazy," said Billy Coleburn, who as editor of the paper wrote most of the stories.
As mayor of the town of 3,700, he must also figure out a way to calm residents' fears.
While hundreds of cougar sightings are reported each year from Maine to the Carolinas, evidence of their presence is as elusive as the big cats themselves.
Since 1900, only 64 sightings have been confirmed in the East outside of Florida, despite tens of thousands of reported sightings, said Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is leading a review of the eastern cougar.
"People see an animal run quickly across the road in front of them at night in their headlights, and they might jump to the conclusion it's a cougar, but a number of those reports are inaccurate," McCollough said.
Mark Dowling, co-founder of The Cougar Network, a research organization, calls it "mountain lion mania," when one sighting spawns others.
It is easy to misjudge an animal's size from a distance, Dowling said. His organization often gets photos of housecats from people who believe they are seeing cougars.
Dowling and other experts say the stragglers that do turn up are former pets. Experts estimate there are at least 1,000 captive cougars in the East, although many states have outlawed having a cougar as a pet.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife review, due this winter, is expected to put to rest the question on whether mountain lions still roam eastern forests. If it finds the eastern cougar is extinct, it will be removed from the list of endangered species. If not, a plan could be put in place to manage the cougars that are here and possibly bring others in.
Those in favor of reintroducing cougars say it is a way to restore some of the natural balance to the ecosystem. The cougar's favorite meal is deer, which cause an estimated 1.5 million auto accidents and 150 deaths annually because of overpopulation.
McCollough said while the natural habitat is well-suited, the fears of easterners accustomed to life without the world's fourth-largest cats might be the bigger impediment to reintroduction.
"The biological issues are probably not as difficult to deal with as the social or political issues," he said.
Officials estimate there are as many as 35,000 mountain lions in the West, including in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. And some are inching eastward.
A cougar kitten was hit by a truck in Kentucky in 1997, one cougar was killed and another captured in West Virginia in 1976 and scientists verified droppings from Massachusetts in 1997.
Earlier this year, police killed a cougar in Chicago that was traced through Wisconsin from South Dakota. Sightings have been confirmed in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and down to Arkansas and Louisiana.
But experts say those are isolated incidents.
Hundreds of motion-activated cameras dot forests throughout the East, from Great Smoky Mountain National Park to an ongoing study along 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The results: hundreds of photos of bears, deer and other critters but no cougars.
"I don't want to come out and say that everybody who says they've seen a mountain lion is a crackpot or mistaken, but if the cats were there, I believe we would be confirming them" more through roadkill, trail cameras or other means, said Jay Tischendorf, president of the nonprofit Eastern Cougar Foundation.
Blackstone recently set up a handful of cameras in the woods with the hope of getting proof, and the town's lone animal control officer's hours were pushed back to patrol for the nocturnal cat.
Earlier this month, town officials made a cast of what they believed was a cougar track and sent it to state biologists.
The determination: inconclusive.
Sue Cobbs doesn't need proof. She knows what she saw twice near her Blackstone home. In June, a big brown cat with a long tail chased a deer through her back yard. A month later, she saw one outside her neighbor's house.
Like Goodwyn, she's now a little more careful when she goes outside.
"Every time I take my dogs out to go to the bathroom," she said, "I'm standing there watching the horizon."
On the Net:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Cougar Review: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/ECougar/
The Cougar Network: http://www.easterncougarnet.org/
Eastern Cougar Foundation: http://www.easterncougar.org/
Feline Conservation Federation: http://www.felineconservation.org/