Alumni Spotlight: Brian Kertson

“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.”

Brian Kertson

In his role as a large  carnivore researcher, Kertson often finds himself with unusually exciting dance partners.

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

Brian Kertson

It’s hard to believe these fluffy cougar kittens will grow up into one of North America’s foremost predators.

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.

Cougar

Despite a fearsome reputation, cougars rarely attack humans in Washington, with only 18 documented attacks since 1900 (only one of which was fatal).

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.”

Brian Kertson

Kertson out radio tracking cougars.

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.”

Husky Ties
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.”

Cougar

Kertson says he doesn’t walk the woods afraid of cougars and large carnivores, but he has a “healthy respect” for them.

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.

Brian Kertson

Director’s Message: Summer 2013

Last December, Forbes magazine published an article on the 10 “worst” college degrees, and a sister article on the 15 “most valuable” college degrees. Even though I immediately disagreed with the reduction of “value” to a dollar figure—and noted that “most valuable” is not a direct antonym for “worst”—the message to readers was unmistakable: A college degree is valued by the employment potential and the starting wages for recent grads.

I sighed in relief as I paged through the article and didn’t find natural resource and forest management or environmental science among the ranks of their list. That said, I was surprised and dismayed to see anthropology (the study of humankind) at the top, and subjects like art, philosophy and history also considered “worst” among our college offerings.

Jennifer Perkins

Jennifer Perkins, a 2011 graduate from SEFS, now works at the UW Office of Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability.

Not long after I read the Forbes piece, a similar story on LinkedIn again pinned the value of a college degree squarely on employment and entry pay. Without question, a college education should lead to a marketable skillset and a living wage. But I couldn’t help thinking that lost in these calculations of “value” is that students might not just want to make a living—they might want to love their living.

When I think about our own programs at SEFS, it’s impossible to miss that during the last six years, our Environmental Science and Resources Management (ESRM) major and Bioresource Science and Engineering (BSE) degrees have seen steady growth. For the past few years, moreover, our BSE graduates have had a 100-percent success rate landing jobs as soon as they’re finished with school, and in many cases long before graduation.

Take Megan James, a senior BSE major who is about to graduate this June. She’s been actively involved in papermaking at SEFS, and last summer she completed an internship with Procter & Gamble. That experience led to a job offer to continue on full-time after graduation as a process engineer at a brand-new paper plant in Bear River City, Utah.

Or consider Jennifer Perkins, who graduated as an ESRM major in 2011. Shortly after she finished school, she landed a position just up the road as the program coordinator for the University of Washington Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability Office. She’s loving her job promoting sustainability projects around campus, and she credits much of her enthusiasm and environmental expertise with her time at SEFS.

I also think of Dr. Brian Kertson, a SEFS alumnus who now works with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. He came through all levels of our program, earning his B.S. in forest resources (wildlife science) in 2001, then an M.S. and then a Ph.D.—and now he has a dream job working with large carnivores, and especially cougars, in the state.

Megan James

Megan James, left, and other members of the student TAPPI chapter during their annual holiday papermaking project.

The list goes on and on, and the more I think about it, the more I see how flawed the metrics are in the Forbes and LinkedIn stories. Nowhere in these articles or analyses is there consideration of “quality of life,” or deep interest or devotion to the topic or craft that might become the focus of the majority of our waking hours. Reflecting on my own degrees in soil science, I know I didn’t enroll in the major for the employment opportunities or high salary potential. Rather, I pursued the natural resources because of my desire to work on something real and tangible, my love for the outdoors, love of science, my awe at the complexity of ecosystems and particularly soils, and for so many creative possibilities of study and exploration.

Passion will carry you a long way toward success, and that starts, in many cases, with enjoying the job in front of you. So as our undergraduate and graduate students head out into the world, I am confident we have not only improved their employability, but perhaps more important, we have enhanced their environmental and conservation literacy, sharpened their critical thinking skills, and prepared them for a lifetime of growth and career satisfaction. They’ll have to chance to do what they know, and in fields they love. I’m not convinced there’s a more “valuable” outcome you can hope to achieve from an education.

Photo of Jennifer Perkins © Jennifer Perkins; photo of Megan James © Megan James.

Grad Student Spotlight: Carol Bogezi

Field work for graduate wildlife students often involves a great deal of patience. You might spend days tracking wolves or grizzlies before you catch a glimpse, or even have to wait months trying to spy your first lynx.

Carol Bogezi

Bogezi and her “big kitty.”

Not so for Carol Bogezi, a first-year Ph.D. student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). She struck pay dirt on her first time out, capturing a full-grown, 150-pound male cougar in the North Fork Creek drainage of the Marckworth State Forest, east of Duvall, Wash. She had set out to the study site with Dr. Brian Kertson, a SEFS alumnus and cougar expert who now works with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, when they came across the treed cat.

“When you see one in a tree, you think it’s just a big kitty,” she says. “But when you have it down and are measuring it in your hands, it’s really big!”

Bogezi grew up outside of Kampala, Uganda, and moved to Seattle this past September to begin graduate work with Professor John Marzluff. Back home, she had most recently been studying the habitat and distribution of crocodiles in Kidepo Valley National Park, and she had done similar work with elephants and lions. What drew her to the University of Washington was the chance to study in a totally new environment, and also to focus on the human dimensions of wildlife interactions and management. Studying cougars in western Washington was a perfect fit.

She’s still fine-tuning her research question, but Bogezi is especially interested in investigating how wildlife responds to human activities, such as logging or hiking, in natural areas. Also, as in the case with cougars, how do you mitigate conflicts—especially within her study area, which extends up to the Seattle suburbs and the Interstate 90 corridor? Or, in cases where perception can be more damaging than reality, can you change human attitudes toward wildlife and facilitate greater community understanding and tolerance of local species?

Beginning later this spring, she’ll get another opportunity to explore some of those questions in a separate joint research project with Marzluff and Professors Stanley Asah and Aaron Wirsing. The study, recently awarded funding by the Institute of Forest Resources at SEFS, will approach the management of wolves in eastern Washington—specifically, whether it’s possible, via rancher compensation or other economic incentive programs, to support a healthy and sustainable wolf presence in the state.

Carol Bogezi and Croc

Bogezi captures a crocodile during one of her research projects back in Uganda’s Kidepo Valley National Park.

Bogezi says the challenge with wolves is similar to situations she experienced in Uganda involving elephants damaging crops, or lions taking livestock. She recalls showing up to heated meetings with farmers who had lost animals, or who had their fields trampled, and sometimes they’d even come waving spears. “If it’s touching their livelihoods, that’s where there’s conflict,” she says.

But the issue with wolves could be more emotional than practical—in part, Bogezi believes, because we’re raised on stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” that teach kids to fear and even hate wolves. Whatever the root causes or potential solutions, though, Bogezi is excited to get out and learn firsthand what’s driving perceptions. “I want to find out what people really think about the wolves,” she says, “and get ideas from the ranchers themselves about how to manage this conflict.”

When she completes her graduate work, Bogezi hopes to return to Uganda and, if possible, continue working there with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). She would love to replicate her research here back home, and to help mitigate wildlife conflicts in other geographical areas around Uganda and Africa.

By then, she’ll be thoroughly field-tested, having handled crocodiles, held a full-grown cougar in her lap, and stared down spears in the line of research. Certainly makes you wonder what kind of challenge she’ll take on next!

Photos courtesy of Carol Bogezi.