FRIENDSVILLE -- In the rugged mountains of Western Maryland, the woods are deep enough to hide most anything -- even a ghost cat.
Once upon a time, cougars ruled the forest of oak and evergreen, carving a reputation as sleek and silent hunters that rarely emerged from the shadows.
Alas, the secretive predators were chased away by settlers and loggers. By the turn of the century, the ghost cat was receding into legend.
Though the species has survived in the Western United States and in Florida, the Eastern cougar, Felis concolor, officially is no more in Maryland. Only stories and stuffed lions remain.
But the legend of the ghost cat has taken a new and mysterious turn. There are tantalizing hints of a cougar comeback near the town of Friendsville, in Garrett County.
The terrain is wild enough -- and somewhat eerie. Homes are specks in a sea of green, dusk comes early in the valleys, and shrieks in the forest can wake people up in the middle of the night.
Could a breeding population of mountain lions be creeping back into the state? Could the Eastern cougar -- a bit smaller and darker than its tawny Western kin -- be making a comeback like the bald eagle and black bear?
Many Marylanders want that to happen because the cougar symbolizes Nature in her unfettered condition, as she was before the spoilage of urban sprawl.
Linda Wolf, wife of a Friendsville orthodontist, believes the ghost cat is more than a myth. She says she saw a cougar this summer.
And Paul Schroyer of Friendsville has captured a mountain lion on videotape, arousing hope among skeptical state biologists of a restoration in Maryland.
Mrs. Wolf, 45, reported seeing a panther near her farm in June. She was driving down a desolate road about 5 p.m. when the creature darted 30 feet in front of her van.
The big cat was "grayish-black and furry, moving left to right," Mrs. Wolf recalls. "I thought it might be a bobcat -- we see them often up here -- but this animal had a long tail that curled up at the end.
"I only saw it for about 10 seconds before it ran up into a steep rocky area, just in front of our lane.
"I haven't seen it since."
A dozen reports a year
The report was one of about a dozen that come from Garrett and Allegany counties each year -- more than the rest of Maryland combined. That's not surprising, say wildlife officials. Garrett, Maryland's westernmost county, remains 75 percent wooded, with the state's most rugged terrain. Allegany is a close second.
If cougars still live in Maryland, "it would be a sign that we've maintained enough high-quality habitat for them to survive," says Leslie Johnston, district wildlife manager in Garrett for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
One of her tasks is to investigate all cougar sightings in the county.
"We get reports from all over, of lions colored both tawny and black, and some reports are certainly from credible people," says Ms. Johnston.
Virtually none of the sightings are accompanied by proof of the ghost cat's existence. "We've never found their scat [droppings], a cache of their food, or even a deer that's been preyed upon," says Ms. Johnston.
Nor has anyone ever reported a cougar being hit by a car. By contrast, 11 bears have been struck by autos in Garrett County this year. "You'd think there would have been at least one cougar road kill, especially along Interstate 68," she says.
The making of a videotape
Paul Schroyer lives less than a mile from that highway. Last year, on a wintry day, Mr. Schroyer, 61, a retired pipefitter, spotted what looked like a mountain lion slinking through the snow across the road from his house.
The long-tailed animal, about 6 feet in length overall and weighing perhaps 80 pounds, moved gracefully along Bear Creek, a trout stream, less than 150 feet from where Mr. Schroyer and his daughter, Jenny, were standing. They grabbed the family's camcorder and filmed the dark-colored shape for five seconds before it darted behind a thicket of mountain laurel and disappeared up a craggy mountainside.
The Schroyers called Ms. Johnston, who watched the tape again and again. Her decision?
"That's one big cat," Ms. Johnston murmured.
The video confirmed the presence of one cougar in Maryland, she says.
"We've had hundreds of sightings, but this one is on tape."
Ms. Johnston treated the film as if it were photographic evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. She viewed the tape "hundreds of times" before sharing it with DNR wildlife biologists at a meeting in Annapolis. "I even watched it in slow motion," she says. "I wanted to be sure."
Before the conference, her DNR colleagues were skeptical. But when the tape was shown, "I heard a big 'Ooooooooooo,' " she says.
The question, says Ms. Johnston, is: Where did the cougar come from? Is it part of a long-lost pride of wild mountain lions that eluded man for a century, or a pet that was released or escaped?