A Redmond man at first denied the cougar he killed last year was in a live trap when he shot it, but later pleaded guilty to a related charge and was fined $1,300.
Biologist Brian Kerston saw right away that something was wrong with the live trap he had set to capture a cougar for research purposes.
The door of the cage was sprung, but there was no big cat inside. Looking closely, Kerston realized that the floor of the trap was smeared with blood.
“There was a big pool of blood in the back,” said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) researcher, who tracks cougar movements. “I was pretty sure somebody had shot something in that trap.”
It didn’t take wildlife officials long to piece together an evidence trail that led them to a 53-year-old Redmond man who killed a young male cougar in the trap, then tried to pass it off as the product of a legitimate hunt. Ronald Dean Wentz initially denied that the animal, which was wearing a GPS collar, was in the trap when he shot it. Wentz later admitted he had lied. He pleaded guilty to a related charge and was fined $1,300.
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“I’ve been doing cougar research for over 10 years, and this is the first time I’ve had anything remotely like this happen,” Kerston said. “To say I was angry would be a wild understatement.”
Wentz declined to comment.
The incident occurred in February 2016 but was brought to light recently when an animal-rights group requested an investigation.
Kerston is studying interactions between cougars in eastern King and southeast Snohomish counties and their human neighbors in communities like Duvall, Fall City and North Bend. As part of the project, he captures cats in large traps baited with roadkill and camouflaged with branches and brush.
The trap where the cougar was shot was on a large tract of private timberland called the Snoqualmie Forest, northwest of Mount Si in the Cascade foothills. The area is crisscrossed with logging roads, and Kerston said he tries to conceal the traps in less-traveled areas. The traps are about 10 feet long and 4 feet square.
Kerston fits the trapped animals with GPS collars, then monitors where and how often they venture into residential areas.
Earlier studies found that conflicts with humans increase in areas with high levels of cougar hunting and lots of young animals. The population Kerston studies is fairly stable, with many older animals, and he hopes to find out whether that means fewer conflicts.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife incident report, Wentz notified WDFW officers — as required by law — that he had killed a cougar. When an officer came to inspect the animal and mark the hide as legal, Wentz said he had shot the animal near a trap.
Later the same day — after Kerston reported his bloody discovery — the officer returned and pressed Wentz about his story. Wentz admitted the cougar was in the trap, the report says, but claimed he didn’t realize it because the animal was hissing and rushed to the front of the cage.
Wildlife officers weren’t convinced. During their investigation, they returned to the trap and put a large dog inside. “There was absolutely no way to see the animal without realizing it was in a trap,” the report says.
While it is illegal to shoot an animal in a research trap, it’s not illegal for licensed hunters to shoot collared animals in the appropriate season, said WDFW Capt. Alan Myers.
“It’s frowned upon, but it’s not illegal outright,” he said.
The report notes that Wentz and a companion with him when the cougar was killed “are no strangers to the concept of wildlife research, as they have killed two bears in the last two years which were fitted with collars for wildlife research.”
Kerston had been tracking the cougar Wentz killed, along with its brother, since they were kittens. He was also tracking their mother, who was killed legally by a hunter just weeks before her offspring was shot by Wentz.
King County District Court records show Wentz was charged with interfering with fishing or hunting gear, a gross misdemeanor, in August 2016. He pleaded guilty in December, was fined $1,300 and sentenced to probation and two days on a community work crew.
Early this year, the incident caught the attention of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based animal-rights organization. The group filed a complaint in January with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking the agency to investigate possible violations of animal welfare laws on the part of the researchers.
The complaint was directed at the University of Washington because a graduate student was involved in the project.
Kerston said all his traps are now equipped with transmitters that notify him immediately when a trap has been sprung. He’s also taking more care to locate traps away from any well-traveled roads.
“I work very hard to maintain the care and welfare and safety of any animal I capture and handle and monitor,” Kerston said. “I think the responsibility here lies entirely on these individuals who chose to violate every aspect of fair chase and ethical hunting and shoot an animal in a trap.”