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Originally published August 18, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified August 19, 2009 at 4:25 PM

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Cougar on Leavenworth trail baffles Forest Service officials

Encounters between at least four mountain-bike riders and a cougar on a trail north of Leavenworth this summer have left wildlife and Forest Service officials puzzling over the cat's aggressiveness and why it doesn't appear to be afraid of humans.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Encounters between at least four mountain-bike riders and a cougar on a trail north of Leavenworth this summer have left wildlife officials puzzling over the cat's aggressiveness and why it doesn't appear to be afraid of humans.

The cougar looks about 1 to 2 years old and may have been kicked out of its den, said Craig Bartlett, a spokesman with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Young cougars stay with their mothers anywhere from 12 to 19 months, according to the state.

"They [young cougars] tend to get into the biggest trouble but don't pose as big a threat as an older cougar, which can be more cantankerous," Bartlett said.

Janet Millard, a wildlife biological technician with the U.S. Forest Service, said that when she first heard about the cougar incidents she thought the animal might be defending a kill and felt threatened by the bikers.

She also thought it might be a female with kittens, but then decided its size meant it was likely a male. Adult males average 140 pounds but can weigh as much as 180 pounds.

Forest Service officials believe the four mountain bikers were all confronted by the same cougar.

Bartlett said wildlife managers estimate there are about 2,000 cougars in Washington, although the actual number could be higher.

"Cougars do things for a lot of different reasons," he said. "It could be testing itself. It could be curiosity. It could be youthful behavior."

The encounters led to closure of the popular trail in the Freund Canyon.

The state hired a bounty hunter to track the cougar but called him off after three unsuccessful attempts to find the cat. The trail remains closed, however. The bounty hunter will return if there are more cougar sightings.

Nobody has been injured by the animal, but the mountain-bike riders who found themselves eye to eye with the cat say the experience was scary enough on its own.

Dan Jones, of Olympia, was biking on the trail earlier this summer with his fiancée, Katie Halmos, when the cougar appeared.

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They had ridden about a mile when the cougar leapt out at Halmos. Jones responded by putting his bike between Halmos and the cougar.

"After about four minutes of the scariest moment of my life, I thought I better try something else," he said.

So he walked toward the animal to see if it would back down. Instead, it moved toward him, hissing, showing its teeth and swinging its paws.

Halmos grabbed a stick of wood and hit the cat's shoulders, causing it to back away.

"That was the game changer," said Jones. "It still came at us, but we had more distance and it slithered off into the woods.

"I've hunted since I was a kid and spent hours in the woods, but I've never experienced anything like it," he said. "They're doing the right thing by getting rid of the cougar. It's way, way over the top."

Another biker, Jason Helsel, of Wenatchee, was biking on the trail with his father when the cat jumped out of the woods behind his dad.

"I stood up on my bike and started yelling, and he jumped into the bushes," Helsel said. "This is my favorite ride in the whole Wenatchee Valley, but it was a close call."

In another incident, Brian Klaas, of California, was biking on the trail two weeks ago when the cougar showed up and started chasing him. He had to scare it away twice.

Bartlett, with state Fish and Wildlife, said that cougars, like house cats, are attracted to speed "and the worst thing to do if you encounter a cougar is run."

The bicyclists on the trail near Leavenworth did exactly the right thing by standing up to the animal and trying to talk it down, he said.

If you encounter a cougar, you should face the animal, talk to it firmly while slowly backing away, according to wildlife officials. Always leave the animal an escape route. People should not take their eyes off the cougar, turn their backs to it, crouch down or try to hide.

If the cougar shows aggression, people should shout, wave their arms and throw anything available at the animal. "The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not a prey, but a potential danger."

Bartlett said if the state can catch the cougar it likely will be euthanized.

"Human safety comes first in these cases, and we don't want to take any chances," he said.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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