The false alarm is the latest in the region's long history of wondering if that thing someone saw might have been a cougar.   Stangel says cougars probably come through from time to time. Several years ago, a rash of sightings included one supposedly by a North Mankato police officer.   As for substantiated sightings -- which is to say sightings with verifiable proof, such as photographs or video -- Stangel says there are still none.   And he's not alone.
     The Cougar Network, a nonprofit that studies cougar-habitat relationships, keeps a running tally of confirmed sightings on its website. Its criteria for confirmation is rigid: So-called Class 1 confirmations require the carcass of a dead cougar or photographic or DNA evidence such as hair. Class 2 requires tracks verified by a trained professional or some other tangible evidence such as
  prey carcasses, microscopic hair recognition or "a thin-layer chromatography of scat." Since the 1990s, when the network began keeping track, there have been no Class 1 or Class 2 sightings in the nine-county area.   Still, Stangel says reports come in periodically. So far in 2012, Stangel says the DNR has received five reports. Oddly, one of the five this year came in as a black panther sighting, though unless one escaped from a zoo, Stangel says that possibility is extremely remote. The closest possible large cat that could be mistaken for a black panther, he said, may be a jaguar. But those are rare as well and reside mostly only in the extreme southwest part of the country near Mexico.   Stangel says that possibly in many cases, people are seeing a common forest animal from a distance and mistaking it for a cougar.   While it may be hard to believe, Stangel says, otters are sometimes confused for cougars.   "People don't realize how big otters are," he said. "They can be up to five feet long."   He said he's also heard of cases where bears and fishers have been confused for cougars. In a case a year ago, a pair of men in Jackson County shot and killed a cougar. But they found themselves in legal trouble, because in Minnesota, cougars are a protected species.   Locally, many of the sightings Stangel investigates are tracks in the dirt. Every one he's investigated has wound up being dog tracks.