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His Bark Was Bigger Than Its Bite Confrontations With Cougars On The Rise In Idaho Woods

Russell Maas barked like a dog to scare off one cougar.

Darrell Brazington stripped the shirt off his stepson and set it on fire to fend off another.

And Dan Smith ended up shooting two of the big cats when they charged him from the brush.

The mix of hunters and a plentiful crop of cougars has led to some tense encounters in the Panhandle’s forests this month.

About a dozen cougar sightings have been reported in the five northern counties this year, but Idaho Fish and Game officials say it’s no cause for alarm.

The big cats mostly are curious and not prone to attack humans. They do tend to follow hunters, though, especially those using predator or elk calls, said Greg Johnson, a state Fish and Game conservation officer in Boundary County.

“They hear something or encounter someone that smells funny and come closer to check it out,” Johnson said.

“When a cougar comes too close it usually gets shot. You’ve heard the saying, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ Well, that’s usually what happens to the mountain lions.”

Smith, a Coeur d’Alene man, was hunting this weekend near Canfield Mountain. He told conservation officers three of the cats charged him. He shot and killed the mother mountain lion and one of her nearly full-grown offspring. The shooting is under investigation to ensure Smith acted in self-defense, said Steve Agte, a regional conservation officer.

“We don’t want open season on cougars because people are afraid of them,” Agte said. “I’m not saying a cougar won’t attack a person. That’s rare. But we don’t want people thinking if they see one it’s automatically going to attack.”

The trick, Agte said, is deciding at what point the big cats are just being curious or starting to be aggressive. Brazington, 59, and his stepson James Radan, 22, weren’t armed when they were stalked by a cougar last week. The two were surveying timber near Priest River, about a quarter-mile from home.

“Jim was standing near the road and hollered, ‘Cougar,”’ Brazington said. “He came running through the brush toward me and I could see the cougar bounding behind him. It sure looked to me like he was trying to pull Jim down.”

Brazington moved between his stepson and the cougar, waving his arms and yelling. The cat ran off, but came right back.

The two men tried barking at the cat to scare it, then took inventory of their pockets. They found a small knife and a lighter. Brazington told his stepson to take off his turtleneck shirt, wrapped it around a stick and set it on fire.

With the cougar only 10 feet away, Brazington moved toward it with the makeshift torch and scared it back.

“It stayed about 50 feet away, flanked us and followed us home,” he said. “It’s kind of humorous now but those were a tense 20 minutes. I look over my shoulder a lot more now.”

Maas and his 14-year-old nephew were scouting game near Moyie Springs in Boundary County when they had their close encounter.

The cat sprinted at them and stopped 10 yards away, crouched and growling. The mountain lion ignored the yelling and frantic arm-waving of the unarmed scouts.

Maas barked like a dog, and the cougar finally backed off.

“I don’t know if barking was the key thing, but it seemed to work,” said Wayne Wakkinen, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

“What you don’t want to do is turn around and run. That triggers a predator response. A mountain lion will chase you like a dog chasing a bicyclist. They climb trees pretty good too.”

Most of the time the big cats are solitary creatures and shy away from people. But wildlife officials aren’t surprised by the recent encounters.

Sightings are typical this time of year when hunters are combing the woods through cougar territory.

The cougar population also is on the rise and has been gradually growing for about five years. That’s partly because there have been plenty of deer for the cougars to feed on, and not a lot of cougar hunters.

More and more people also are moving into rural areas and where there are deer, there will be cougars, Wakkinen said.

, DataTimes