panthers/cougars are around one has been seen around iredell county. a couple friends of mine saw it crossing the road one evening. i don't think that they are migrating back this way, most likely the result of someone keeping one as a "pet" and then releasing it or letting it get away. there were some people i lived near in wilkesboro (actually millers creek) a few years back that had quite a few exotic big cats on their property...and we have coyotes in yadkin and surry county now that we didn't a few years ago so new species are moving in. the conditions are right for them to live here, i don't know why they wouldn't/couldn't make a comeback.
The "pet" theory is the best one and what many 'experts' point to if there were actually a handful of Cougars in the foothills/mountians. However, I have been out of college many years now and they could have been re-introduced to the area without my knowledge of it. In the late '90's there was a push by local biologists to re-introduce native species to the Carolinas that were extirpated. Wild turkey and coyotes were still here, they just had low population levels that rebounded nicely. Elk was re-introducted to Maggie Valley in the late '90's and DEFINITELY were extirpated for the Carolinas for hundreds of years.
Anyway, all joking names aside, Cougars would have been a cool name if Panthers didn't stick.