Editor's note: Rocky Spencer had one of the most unusual job titles in all of state government: carnivore specialist. Spencer and his main co-worker, a dog named Mishka, searched the forests of East King County for evidence of cougars that roam in and around the suburbs there. He and Brian Kertson, a University of Washington doctoral student, had been conducting the most in-depth study ever on the cougars that live alongside the state's largest concentration of humans. Spencer, 55, was killed Saturday while working on a project to relocate bighorn sheep from the Yakima River canyon. He accidentally walked into the rotating blades of a helicopter that was sitting on a slope. He had worked around helicopters for years — "a thousand times," Kertson said Sunday. "And the pilot he was flying with, they've been doing that together for years. They're well-known as the best at doing that." At the time of his death, The Seattle Times was finishing a story about Spencer and his cougar study. His family felt the story should be published as a fitting tribute to a man who was dedicated to educating people about animals.
State's carnivore specialist helped people, cougars coexist
Editor's note: Rocky Spencer had one of the most unusual job titles in all of state government: carnivore specialist. Spencer and his main...
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
He relished "best job in the world"Rocky Spencer grew up in Longview, where he graduated from R.A. Long High School. He earned a degree in wildlife management at Western Washington University and in 1978 began working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"Rocky told me several times that he had the best job in the world," said his brother, Scott Spencer, of Castle Rock, Cowlitz County. "It wasn't a job. It was a lifestyle that became a career."
Mr. Spencer also is survived by his stepmother, Adrienne Spencer, and two stepbrothers, Duke and
Living with wildlife: wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/cougar/cougar.htm
Reports of cougar encounters: wdfw.wa.gov/enf/danger/reporting
Mountain Lion Foundation: www.mountainlion.org
With a machete in one hand and a GPS receiver in the other, Rocky Spencer stepped off an old logging road a few miles from Snoqualmie and hacked through wiry tangles of alder and blackberry branches. His dog Mishka was up ahead somewhere, sniffing through the dense underbrush.
Within a few minutes, Spencer caught up and found Mishka with a remnant from a fawn killed just days earlier by a cougar. Spencer reached in his pocket for a packet of dog treats.
"Good find," Spencer said, handing the dog his reward.
Spencer, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife who died Saturday while working on a relocation project, spent nearly three decades studying everything from grouse and peregrine falcons to deer and elk.
But cougars and black bears were his latest specialty.
His job was to learn as much as he could about these predators and find ways to prevent them from coming into conflict with the humans who are encroaching deeper and deeper into their habitat.
What he and fellow researcher Brian Kertson were finding is that cougars are in our midst — hunting, mating and raising their young — far more often than we ever imagine.
Using an assortment of high-tech tools — including the latest computer mapping programs and collars equipped with satellite-tracking devices — the biologists recorded the day-to-day wanderings of some two dozen cougars in East King and South Snohomish counties.
They created maps covered with dots to show the recorded locations of cougars that spent weeks cruising the fringes of neighborhoods in places like Maple Valley, North Bend and Carnation.
While some may find all of this alarming, Spencer and Kertson saw it as proof that, with proper precautions, cougars and humans can and do coexist without much trouble.
"This goes on all the time," Spencer said recently. "The reality is, you rarely even know they're there."
Working from a pickup
Spencer had an office in Issaquah, but he spent about half his time working out of a pickup truck.
The cab was like something out of "CSI" — a GPS receiver on the dash, laptop computer on the front seat, and a "capture pack" that included tranquilizer darts and vials for collecting blood and DNA.
In back, alongside Spencer's lunch cooler, sat a bag of raccoon parts gathered from a cougar kill site on a previous outing.
Mishka knew the routine and seemed to perk up once the truck hit the gravel road.
Spencer had worked with Mishka, a Karelian bear dog, for four years. He also used the dog to help deal with problem bears.
An estimated 25,000 black bears wander the state — roughly 10 times the population estimates for cougars.
But, as is true throughout the West, cougars spark the most controversy here. That's been especially true during the past two decades as human-cougar encounters have grown more frequent.
Theories abound about why such encounters have increased.
Some say it must be because cougar populations are growing, while others say it's mainly because more people are living and playing within cougar habitat. Some scientists blame hunting and habitat depletion for disrupting cougar social dynamics.
Spencer figured it's probably a combination of many things.
"It is incumbent upon us to tease out those factors that are most important," he said.
Whenever somebody's pet or farm animal goes missing or is mauled in places like East King County, cougars are usually first to get the blame, Spencer said. Most often, however, the culprit is some other predator, such as a coyote.
Last spring, when a state senator's dog was killed near Maple Valley, the senator put out a news release speculating the dog had been attacked by a "prowling cougar," and urging local officials to take action.
Spencer later determined the dog actually had been killed by a bobcat.
What cougars eat
Over the past several years, Spencer and Kertson examined about 150 cougar kill sites. Spencer said what they saw was that pets and livestock made up less than 2 percent of cougar prey in their study area.
Mostly, he said, cougars feed on deer and an assortment of smaller critters, such as raccoons and rabbits — animals often drawn to the suburban fringes by backyard gardens, garbage and feeders.
One surprise to the biologists was how often cougars feast on beavers — fat and slow prey that Spencer said must seem to cougars "like a great big Milk Dud."
Spencer and Kertson estimated 30 to 40 cougars live or spend time within their 1,100-square-mile study area, which stretches from Maple Valley to U.S. Highway 2 and east to the Cascade crest.
Since starting their study in 2003, they had placed GPS collars on 25 different cougars — though Kertson said 11 were the most they ever had "on the air" at one time.
They were down to four collared cougars lately due to a rash of cougar deaths, Kertson said.
Last month, for instance, a woman living in a remote location a few miles from Duvall spotted a female cougar and two kittens feeding on a llama that she had tethered in a clearing in the forest. The woman grabbed her 30.06 rifle and shot the adult cougar and one of the kittens.
Of 16 dead collared cougars that the biologists had been able to locate, six were killed by hunters, three were shot by people protecting livestock, and one was hit by a car. Three more died of feline leukemia. The other three died of unknown causes.
It's little surprise that so many cougar deaths were "people related," Kertson said. All but two of the 25 cougars they tracked spent some time in or near towns.
Perhaps the most dramatic example was three years ago, when they discovered that one of the collared cougars had been hanging out for three days less than 50 yards behind a home near Hobart.
It had been feeding on a three-point buck.
"We had no idea," said Traci Linde, who lived there with her husband and three children. "Hadn't heard anything, hadn't seen anything."
But the Lindes were more excited than alarmed when Spencer came to caution them there might be a cougar in the brush behind their house.
"We actually thought it was really cool," Linde said.
A surprising discovery
Spencer and Kertson pinpointed cougar kill sites by downloading data from the GPS collars. When a cougar stays in one area for more than 16 hours, that often means it is feeding on a fresh kill.
A couple of weeks ago, they got a batch of new data — from a female cougar they called Basha — indicating there might be several kill sites in one area.
They set out to take a look. That same day, less than four miles away, thousands of people were watching the Boeing Classic professional golf tournament in Snoqualmie.
On the drive in, Kertson picked up a signal from Basha's collar. She was about a mile from any of the potential kill sites. He figured she was off hunting.
Using their GPS receivers, Spencer and Kertson walked to within a few yards of the first location. As is often the case, however, Mishka was the first to find the kill.
Within a couple of hours, they located two more of Basha's kill sites — all deer. At each, all that remained were a few bones, some hair and piles of moss that the cougar likely used to cache the meat for a while.
Spencer stashed some of the bones in a ziplock bag. The marrow, he said, could reveal valuable information about the health of the deer.
Then, while looking for a fourth kill on a steep slope, Mishka started barking. Spencer and Kertson scrambled to see why.
Within seconds, they found two cougar kittens huddled in a small burrow beneath a stand of vine maple. Spencer and Kertson didn't hesitate — each reached in and pulled out a kitten by the scruff of the neck.
Kertson estimated the kittens, spotted and already bigger than most house cats, were six weeks old. They hissed and growled, and both managed to inflict several scratches on their captors' arms.
After examining the kittens for several minutes, the biologists put them back in the burrow. With all the human scent around, they said, Basha would likely move the kittens once she returned.
On the way back to the truck, Spencer and Kertson rehashed every detail of the encounter. It had been nearly a year since they'd come upon such young kittens.
Spencer ruffled the dog's head and said, "It's steak tonight, Mishka."
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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