The Cougar Chronicles
"We're going to drive quickly up to the kill site and let the dogs out as fast as we can. Hopefully we can get her to run South or West instead of East or North. She knows the sound of my truck so she'll be on the run as soon as she hears it."
Brian Kertson of the WA Dept of Fish and Wildlife has been studying cougars in the Pacific Northwest for over 10 years now. His dedication to his job, the wilderness areas in our state, and his passion for these local feline residents instills respect.
Joe and I were ready to jump out of the big F350 diesel and follow the dogs as soon as they were released. We had met Brian early that morning at his home in our full rain gear ready for damp, cold weather and lots of bush wacking. Brian already had all his gear, nets, tranquilizer darts, ropes, radios and GPS units in the truck and we rolled out to the watershed areas north of Snoqualmie Ridge while he filled us in on the plan for the day.
"Hopefully we'll get to see some cats today," he said. "I think we have a pretty good chance. I need to catch them to check their condition and change out the batteries in their GPS collars. Typically I call this time of year capture season since we do it at the same time every year. This mom and her two daughters have been in the area for two days now at a kill site and we're meeting our dog guy today too. Our chances are good as long as we get them to run the right direction."
(The "dog truck." Toyota Tacoma with a custom dog bed in the back. The dogs can also ride on top)
As the truck lurched to a stop, what seemed like 30 dogs had already piled out of the Tacoma and were scouring the woods for a scent. Joe and I jogged to keep up with Brian. Within seconds the dogs charged back across the road we had just come down, barking excitedly. Not even minutes later they were baying out the signal that they had treed a cat. "That was fast," Brian said, checking the GPS locator on the dogs. We jumped back in the truck and drove just a 1/4 mile down the road. There she was -- one of the young females, the one with a collar, in a tree right beside the road.
(One of the young females, about 22 months old -- one of the ones Brian was hoping to catch).
Brian using the antenna and radio to confirm which cat was in the tree. The collars send signals to the receiver and even when he can't pick them up with the antenna he gets an email message from each collar every 4 hours with the cat's GPS location.
The dogs were still signaling wildly even though we had arrived. The cat didn't seem the least scared. More just annoyed by these damn dogs I figured.
Brian assessed the situation. He really wanted to get her, but of all the trees in the area she could have chosen, she chose a good tall one surrounded by a lot of dangerous undergrowth and debris. If he climbed up the tree and tranquilized her, he could put both her and himself at risk. He decided against it for today. It was still early in the season and he respects and cares for these cats.
"See you next time F19!" The cat tracked him as he walked along the road yelling up to her. "Hopefully I'll see you later this week. Choose a better tree next time, girl! Take care."
We headed back to the kill site to see if the dogs could pick up the trail of mom or the other daughter. This time we got to see the remains of the deer. Brian crouched down and checked its teeth, broke off a leg bone and cracked it on a rock to see what condition the marrow was in. He explained that when the marrow is white and harder, the deer is healthy. This deer's marrow was red and gelatinous. "It was a bit malnourished," he said. "It's a good thing we came out today. The cats only had one leg left to eat on this and then they would have left the area. They usually stay within 15-20 meters of a kill until it's finished. They hadn't even bothered to cache this one."
The dogs were baying again like they were on another scent. The GPS showed them zigzagging back and forth and even running in circles at times. I asked Brian, "Are they on a scent or just running around trying to find one?"
"Oh, I bet that's mom," he said. The admiration in his voice betrayed his respect for her,"She is the smartest cat I have ever seen. In twelve years I have not had one other cat like her. That cat will run in circles, change her course, find deep woods to run through and always chooses the tallest trees. If I don't get her today, she knows now that we are back to capture season and she'll bolt as soon as she hears my truck for a few months."
We piled into the trucks again and raced off as close as we could get to where the dogs had finally stopped deep in the woods. "We'll have to hike from here," Brian said, "I have a couple packs with the nets and things in the bed for you guys to carry." Dear sweet Jesus, please let her be close to the road, I thought. This pack was made for a 6 foot, 250lbs guy to carry. I stumbled off in pursuit of the guys staggering around like a drunken midget over the uneven ground. "I'll take up the rear," I called and pushed forward determined to see "Mom." I loved this cat already without even having seen her yet.
(Me getting ready to bush wack)
Stay tuned for the rest of the story!