Like some other residents of this 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 U.S. by 1900. They claim sightings most likely are cases of mistaken identity – perhaps just bobcats, deer or even dogs.
“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 is as elusive as the big cats themselves.
Since 1900, only 64 sightings have been confirmed in the East outside of Florida, out of 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.
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 and possibly bring others in.