Agents with the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Police tracked and killed this cougar that is believed responsible for attacking two mountain bikers in the woods northeast of Snoqualmie on Saturday, May 19, 2018. One person was fatally injured and the other is in satisfactory condition at Harborview Medical Center. (Submitted photo)

The large cat leaped from a tree, landing on Bart George’s back, pinning him squarely to the ground. He felt the animal clawing at his backpack

“I didn’t have my gun or bear spray on me, which was totally stupid,” George said.

It was 2016 and George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel Tribe, was tracking a cougar through the woods of Pend Oreille County. The animal had attacked one of his dogs – Nosy – and dragged it to a nearby tree. George was walking through the woods looking for the missing dog. At his side was another one of his dogs.

Then he stumbled upon the cougar, which was on top of Nosy, the missing dog. George immediately started retreating. As he did so, he tossed a giant stick in an attempt to scare the animal away. As soon as the stick hit the tree, he said the cat leaped onto him.

Luckily for George, he had another dog with him. That dog started fighting the cougar.

“Thank goodness I had that dog on me,” he said.

After a brief struggle, the cougar got off him and stalked away, but not before looking at George “with a totally arrogant look,” typical of house cats everywhere.

George, who studies cougars and makes a point of seeking them out, wasn’t badly injured in the attack.

Sunday’s deadly, and rare, cougar attack near Seattle reminded George of his own encounter. While there are major differences between the two, one thing holds true: Bear spray could have played a decisive role in both cases.

“We need to rewrite the narrative of bear spray. In this instance, bear spray, pepper spray, absolutely would have saved their lives,” George said of the cougar attack near North Bend. “It would have saved the cat’s life.”

George works in the woods. He’s a gun owner. He hunts. And he usually carries a pistol when he’s in the field. And yet, he maintains that bear spray is a better option when encountering a wild animal.

“If I’m ever being attacked by a bear, I absolutely don’t want to hear gun fire,” he said. “I’d absolutely rather be pepper sprayed.”

The cougar killed S.J. Brooks, 32, of Seattle, and injured friend Isaac Sederbaum, 31, also of Seattle. The duo were mountain biking on a remote dirt road northeast of Snoqualmie on Saturday morning when they came across the cougar, which began stalking them and then attacked, according to police and Fish and Wildlife officials.

Capt. Alan Myers, of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife police, agreed with George that bear spray could have made a difference.

Myers was quick to point out that the two mountain bikers did everything right, as far as he could tell. After the cougar began to chase them down the road the bikers stopped, made noise and one of them swung a bike at it in an attempt to distract and frighten it, which is what’s recommended during encounters. The animal appeared to have left, but it circled back and pounced on Sederbaum’s head.

That’s abnormal behavior for a cougar, Myers said. While cougars may occasionally stalk a person, they almost always turn away once they realize they’re following a human. This particular cougar was undersized, Myers said.

In this case, it didn’t turn away.

“We don’t know exactly what caused this animal to act the way it did,” he said. “And we may never know.”

The animal’s carcass has been sent to Washington State University for testing.

Myers said the attack highlights one of the fundamental tensions in wild life management: Wild animals aren’t easily managed.

“It’s a difficult task, if not impossible,” he said.

That means one of WDFW’s primary responsibilities is to educate people about how to coexist with wildlife.

“We all have a vested stake in this,” he said. “We’re all part of this ecosystem.”

With more people heading into the side and back countries, especially on the western side of the state, conflicts between humans and wild animals will only increase.

“There are things that we can control and things we can’t,” Myers said.

King County, the state’s most populous county, unsurprisingly has the highest number of conflicts between humans and wild animals. Yet Myers said he has only three enforcement officers covering the entirety of inland King County.

“That’s insane,” he said.

A shrinking budget has left full-time positions unfilled and remaining agency staff stretched thin, Myers said. For WDFW’s enforcement officers, who handle everything from interstate poaching rings to littering, that means mistakes can happen.

WDFW’s 2007-09 biennial operating capital budget was $348.5 million. By the 2009-11 biennium, the budget had dropped 6.1 percent to $326.8 million. The trend continued into 2015, forcing agency-wide layoffs and program reductions.

Unless new revenue sources are found or approved by the Legislature, agency staff predict that during the 2019-21 biennium the department will have an estimated “shortfall north of $30 million.” In 2017, WDFW asked the Legislature to increase hunting and fishing fees. Lawmakers did not pass the bill, leaving the department with a $25 million deficit.

That’s taken a toll on the work that Myers can do. On Saturday, as he rushed to respond to the deadly cougar attack, he pulled officers from three marine enforcement detachments. Those enforcement officers weren’t trained to work with big land animals.

Although everything went OK, Myers said it could have gone differently.

“I’m running on a skeleton crew,” he said.

Cougar attacks are exceedingly rare. There have been 18 nonfatal attacks in Washington since WDFW started keeping records in 1924. . The last fatality was in 1924, when a cougar ambushed a teenage boy near his home in Olema, Okanogan County. Of the 20 recorded attacks 17 have been since 1992.

Sederbaum, the survivor of the cougar attack, was released from the hospital Tuesday.

On Wednesday, recordings of emergency calls about the fatal attack detailed how a dispatcher calmly struggled to figure out where it occurred and how worried the surviving victim was about his friend.

The cougar bit Sederbaum on the head before killing Brooks.

Badly bloodied, Sederbaum got on his bike and rode to where he could get a cellphone signal. The first calls dropped.

But he eventually told dispatchers: “I got attacked by a mountain lion, my friend, too. I don’t know where I am.”

Sederbaum flagged down passing motorists who tried to describe the location.

Myers reiterates that he believes the bikers did everything they could, but because of the cougar’s strange behavior it wasn’t enough.

Although this case is an outlier, it still highlights the importance of knowing how to deal with wildlife and the inherent difficulty of wildlife management.

“My heart goes out to the victims involved in this case,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: Due to a reporter’s error the number of cougar attacks reported throughout the state was incorrect. There have been 18 nonfatal attacks in Washington since 1924. The story has been updated.

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