“I’ve always been fascinated by large carnivores,” says Brian Kertson, a wildlife research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “Not just because of the physical adaptations they have, which are remarkable, but because they have to go out, search, locate, capture and kill other animals—despite the fact those animals have spent hundreds of thousands of years developing tricks to get away from them. That’s a really challenging way to live your life.”
You could argue the same about studying major predators. But that’s exactly how Kertson wants to spend his life, and he’s currently living his dream as a large carnivore researcher for the state.
Growing up in Woodinville, Wash., Kertson says he knew early on that he wanted to study wildlife. As part of a high school project, he remembers coming down to the University of Washington and visiting the College of Forest Resources (CFR). He ended up meeting Professor Dave Manuwal, head of the wildlife science program at the time, and Josh Millspaugh, a doctoral candidate who is now a professor of wildlife management at the University of Missouri.
Kertson talked with Millspaugh about his interest in wildlife and working outside, and that he was thinking of pursuing zoology in college. Millspaugh said that if Kertson really wanted to spend his career in the field and working hands-on with animals, he should consider training as a wildlife scientist.
As it happens, Kertson nearly opted for an entirely different form of training since UW had been recruiting him to play football as a defensive end or outside linebacker. Yet the call of the outdoors and wildlife research won out, and he decided to accept an academic scholarship, enrolling as a freshman at UW in the fall of 1997. “I declared a wildlife science major right out of the gate and never looked back,” he says. “It was a perfect confluence of my three real passions: wildlife, science and just being outdoors.”
CFR, now the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), would end up being his home for most of the next dozen years. He stayed on after his undergraduate degree to earn a Master of Science and then a Ph.D. in 2010, all under the same advisor, Professor Chris Grue.
An associate professor with the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Grue is the unit leader for the Washington Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, which funds research through a number of cooperating agencies. In Kertson’s case, his graduate
research received support through WDFW. “Chris is a great scientist and really adept at working with a wide variety of projects,” says Kertson. “He saw me all the way through for a little more than seven years.”
Cat Scratch Fever
Looking back on his tenure at SEFS, Kertson marvels at the abundance of research outlets the school and university afforded him. It’s an urban campus yet less than an hour from forest and mountain wilderness areas, and only three hours from desert landscapes. He says access to such diverse natural laboratories helped sharpen his tools as a scientist and researcher and, most importantly, helped establish his expertise with carnivores and cougars (also known as mountain lions, pumas or panthers).
Specifically, Kertson’s dissertation involved several years of investigating cougar behavior and ecology in wildland-urban environments in Washington. He looked at how cougars use these environments—how much time they spend in residential areas, how often interactions with people occur, and how the landscape and other demographic factors influence their behavior.
His findings were rather surprising, even a bit hair-raising. “What [my research] showed was that cougars spend a lot more time in residential areas than we knew—a little more than 17 percent of their time,” he says. “Cats use these residential portions of the landscape just like they do wildlands, including hunting for deer and elk in greenbelts and other forested habitats.”
However, the average cougar generates about one report—as in, someone would spot or bump into it on a trail—every 629 days. “So coexistence levels were very high despite a relatively high level of cougar occurrence in residential areas,” he says. “All that was very new. Most work and research on cougars was in wildland environments, and this was one of the first projects to look at people as a permanent presence and a key driver in shaping landscape dynamics for cougars.”
To be clear, Kertson wasn’t talking about downtown Seattle or Bellevue or other highly urban environments. He was investigating border areas of east King County and southeast Snohomish County where residential and other developments abut or overlap with parks, forests and natural areas. The takeaway, though, was that the borders weren’t as defined as previously thought. “Unbeknownst to many of us, we share our neighborhood greenbelts, forests and trails with one of America’s foremost predators—and we’d never know it,” he says.
That doesn’t mean you should get the willies the next time you take the trash out or stroll down the road for a latte. “The reality is, from a safety standpoint, there are a lot of things people should be way more concerned about,” says Kertson. It’s an issue of risk perception. Since 1900, there have been 18 documented cougar attacks on humans in the state of Washington, and only one of them proved fatal, way back in 1924. Plus, he says it’s helpful to remember that a key part of a cougar’s survival strategy is to minimize its exposure to people, even as it lives and hunts in fairly close proximity. So don’t expect to find a cougar curled up and purring in a sunbeam on your sidewalk.
On the Prowl
Kertson, in fact, has to work awfully hard to locate and capture cougars, and he often spends entire days in fruitless pursuit. Yet he says it never gets old when you’ve caught one of these cats and are kneeling next to it (while it’s sedated, of course). “It’s always exciting and a bit awe-inspiring, because they’re just muscles upon muscles. Big cats like cougars, I would argue they’re the epitome of predation efficiency. Everything about their body is the result of thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation to make them more efficient and effective hunters. That’s pretty incredible to see firsthand. It sort of puts you in your place in the universe.”
With such intimidating quarry, there’s plenty of thrill in the chase, too. “When I’m out doing radio tracking sessions, I’m not afraid of cougars or large carnivores,” he says, “but I have a healthy respect for them. And when you do find yourself in close proximity, even when you know exactly where they are with the radio tracking equipment, you have a very primitive, primordial reaction—your heartbeat picks up, you breathe a little quicker, your senses are a little more attuned. You hear a little better, see a little better, you’re a little more on edge. That reaction is deeply hard-wired.”
Having felt that kind of pulse-pounding excitement, Kertson knew what he wanted to do after school. But when he completed his Ph.D. in 2010, a strapped state budget meant fewer opportunities in his field. He managed to secure a few months of post-graduate work funded by WDFW, and then he found an opening investigating wolf and elk dynamics as a researcher with Idaho Fish and Game. Not long after he moved to Idaho and took that job, a position finally opened up back with WDFW, so he applied and ended up getting hired and moving closer to home. Then, about four months after that, a research position with carnivores opened up in Issaquah, Wash.
The job roulette wasn’t ideal, he says, but finding the right fit isn’t always a linear process or something you can line up perfectly on a calendar. “It was kind of a funny period where I bounced around between really good jobs, but I finally had the opportunity to pursue my dream job—so I went after it and was fortunate enough to land it.”
In his role with WDFW today, Kertson doesn’t spend all of his time in the field prowling for predators. Seasonally, the winter is his busiest season for cougar capture. For much of the rest of the year, field work is interspersed with time in front of a computer analyzing data, writing reports and grants, and reviewing and providing expertise to other agency staff working with large terrestrial carnivores. Such tasks might seem mundane by comparison, but Kertson says they’re all vital parts of the scientific process. “I think my favorite part of the job is that there’re always so many new questions to be answered,” he says. “Whenever you think you’ve got a good idea of how the world works, you’re constantly surprised by what you see and what you learn.”
Back in Issaquah and back in the orbit of UW, Kertson was eager to reconnect with his alma mater. Shortly after accepting his current position, he reached out to several colleagues at SEFS to obtain affiliate faculty status. Academic partnerships are common at WDFW, he says, and agency professionals are encouraged to interact with universities and mentor students as much as they can. “It’s very much a mutually beneficial relationship,” he says.
As an affiliate assistant professor, he currently sits on the committees of a few SEFS graduate students, including Laurel Peele, Justin Dillinger and Carol Bogezi, who he’s helping capture cougars in the Issaquah area.
These relationships are especially meaningful to Kertson. When he reflects on his own education and career path, he’s grateful for the insight and instruction of so many people along the way. Now he’s returning the favor. “I think the biggest factor allowing me to get where I wanted to go was utilizing the relationships and friendships I’ve made, and reaching out and creating new connections,” he says. “I was fortunate to meet the right people to point me in the right direction.”
It’s worth noting that Kertson didn’t meet those people and make connections by accident. He pounced on research opportunities he came across as an undergrad to help broaden his skillset and network with practitioners. “A big part was early on I knew what I wanted to do, so I volunteered a lot,” he says. “That allowed me to meet people and obtain the skills that would make me more marketable. The summer before my junior year, I began volunteering on a research project with WDFW. I got to meet their staff, they got to meet me. I made sacrifices and put in a lot of work, but as a result I’ve had a lot of opportunities.”
The payoff for his persistence and opportunism came in many forms, and one of the most memorable was getting to volunteer on a field project that was way above his pay grade. “It was crazy,” he says. “As an undergraduate intern with WDFW I was assisting with black-tailed deer captures, running around in helicopters, participating in net gunning operations, running around in the forest and tackling deer to put on radio collars.”
Had he chosen to play football, he could have been tackling an entirely different type of cougar. Instead, he’s working with one of the most powerful predators in North America. He’s tracked and caught and measured close to 100 of these big cats, cradled their heads in his lap and felt the immense power of a 185-pound cougar at his fingertips. How many people get to say that?
Photos © Brian Kertson.