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Biologists capture and tag massive cougar north of Chewelah

UPDATED: Thu., March 8, 2018, 2:21 p.m.

Wildlife biologists caught and tagged a massive 197-pound cougar on Monday.

“This guy was unreal,” said Brian Kertson, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife carnivore research scientist. “I wish more people could have seen him firsthand because the pictures don’t do him any justice.”

Kertson is a big guy – 6-foot-2 and roughly 260. But he said the tom cat’s forearms made his arms look puny. The cat was so muscular the first tranquilizer dart that Kertson shot at him popped out as the cat flexed its muscles.

The cougar is the largest captured in Washington as far as Kertson knows.

“He was a monster,” he said. “A cougar that pushes 200 pounds I don’t care where you are in the world that’s pretty extraordinary.”

The cougar’s head measured 56 centimeters in circumference. The animal was 9 years old. According to Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel Tribe, the cougar was eating mostly elk.

The big cat was captured as part of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s predator/prey study. Kertson said the study is aimed at trying to better understand the relationship between wolves and ungulates. However, a secondary consideration is how wolves and cougars interact.

Since Dec. 2016, Kertson has captured 20 cougars and collared 16.

“General dogma is that wolves are dominant to cougars,” he said. “I’m a little more skeptical of that narrative.”

The cat was caught somewhere in game management units 117 and 121, north of Chewelah.

The capture was one of the easiest of the year, Kertson said. Around 8:30 a.m., George spotted the cougar’s tracks crossing a road. He contacted Kertson, who was in the middle of looking for an adult female with a kitten. The tracks George spotted were fresh so the researchers followed them.

“The dogs could smell it in the box,” Kertson said. “Which is a good sign. Which means it’s only a couple hours old.

“We turned the dogs loose. It was a really short chase. They had him treed in about 10 minutes.”

Kertson darted the animal, but the tranquilizer dart popped out. At the time Kertson thought he must have shot the dart too softly. Only later did he realize that the cat was so muscular that “he moved and flexed his thigh so the dart actually popped out.”

The drugs started to work. The cat eventually fell from the tree into the waiting nets below. However, the shock of the landing revived him slightly. As Kertson approached the animal and prepared to tie the cougar’s feet to a tree, he realized the cat was not completely out.

“As I was getting closer he was getting faster,” he said.

So Kertson darted him again – with another full dose. The cat walked roughly 30 yards and finally laid down. As the biologists approached the downed feline they finally realized how large he was.

“He looked big in the tree. But it wasn’t until we had him on the ground that we were gobsmacked,” Kertson said. “We knew we had a monster but when we weighed him that’s when we just sort of went, ‘Wow.’ ”

Kertson has caught a number of cats that weighed more than 170 pounds. On average, tom cougars weight between 150 and 155 pounds.

This animal was different.

“He almost looked cartoonish he was so big,” he said. “Like how a little kid would draw a cougar. Just extra swollen, I guess.”

The second largest cat that Kertson has ever caught was 185 pounds. That cougar was caught in western Washington.

“We were all really excited,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”

The biologists got the collar on the cougar and took some basic measurements. But even after receiving two and a half doses of tranquilizing drugs the animal didn’t stay out long. Just 55 minutes after being first tranquilized the king cougar was up and heading back into the woods.

“That was definitely a once in a lifetime thing for us,” Kertson said.

Correction: This story incorrectly identified the second largest cougar Kertson has ever caught. It has been updated.