Living With Wildlife

May 19, 2006
Filed under Feature Stories

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Reports of bear and cougar sightings are on the rise in parts of the United States where campers and wildlife share the land. Some folks think this is the result of expanding civilization pushing the wildlife out of its traditional habitat. Others might have conflicting theories. What’s most important to campers, though, is that we recognize the trend and take steps to keep our loved ones, our camps and our pets safe.

Although the situation is similar in many areas, one example is Washington State where, in King County alone, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) received 142 reports of black bear sightings in 2005 through the end of July. That’s an increase of nearly 50 percent compared to the 96 calls received during the same period in 2004 year.

To help prevent dangerous problems of the human vs. animal kind, some agencies — such as the National Parks, National Forests, or state Fish and Game departments that oversee public lands favored by campers and hikers — frequently remind us about the steps we can take to reduce the likelihood of an unfortunate run-in with wild animals.

“Public safety is our first priority in managing potentially dangerous wildlife,” says WDFW Jeff Koenings. “And while we’ve taken a number of steps [from setting up a dangerous-wildlife hotline to authorizing special public-safety cougar-removal hunts] to reduce the risk of encounters, citizens also have a major role to play,” he says. “It’s up to each person at home or in a campsite to take care to avoid attracting the animals in the first place. That means appropriately securing garbage, pet food and the like.”

Captain Bill Hebner of the (WDFW) North Puget Sound Enforcement reminds us that bears have a keen sense of smell, and any food sources that are available, such as garbage, pet food left in the open, and even a birdseed feeder, can attract bears and cause them to lose their fear of humans. “Problems result from bears that lose their natural fear of humans, usually at least in part because people intentionally or unintentionally feed bears,” he says.

Hebner continues: “Despite this jump in the number of reported sightings, bears will almost always go out of their way to avoid contact with humans.” He adds that just a handful of bear attacks on humans have been recorded in state history.

The increase in bear sightings doesn’t necessarily mean there is an increased bear population, notes Donny Martorello, WDFW special species section manager. “Black bears are always on the move in search of their next meal, which is primarily huckleberries in the summer, and it could be that bears are simply moving through more areas in search of food and are being spotted by more people,” he says.

In southwest Washington, reported sightings of cougars in 2005 “at least doubled, if not tripled” in frequency compared to 2004, says WDFW Southwest Washington Enforcement Captain Murray Schlenker.

By taking the following steps, you can reduce the likelihood of an encounter with a bear or cougar:

• Keep a clean campsite. Thoroughly wash all cooking utensils after use. Seal uneaten food in airtight containers stored in bear-proof canisters, or suspend it from trees in a “bear bag” away from sleeping areas.

• Do not take food into a tent.

• Treat garbage just as you would treat food — either store it in bear-proof containers or hang it away from the campsite until you can haul it out of the area.

• Remove pet food from the area. Pet food attracts bears directly and can draw the small wildlife that cougars prey upon, thus bringing the big cats into your camp, too.

• Never feed wild animals such as deer, raccoons or squirrels that can attract cougars.

In the event of a run-in with a black bear or a cougar, wildlife experts offer the following advice:

• Do not approach the animal. This is not a movie in which people and predators playfully romp together through the wilderness. This is real life, and it’s a very dangerous situation.

• Do not run. Running triggers an attack response in these animals, so keep all your movements slow and deliberate.

• Pick up small children from the ground so they won’t be seen as easy prey.

• If a black bear is encountered, stand tall, wave your arms above your head, shout and make lots of noise. Leave an escape route open to the bear so it won’t feel trapped and forced into fighting its way to safety. Try to keep upwind of the bear so that it can identify your scent as belonging to a human, which will likely prompt the bear to leave the area.

• If a cougar is encountered, stop and stand tall. Try to appear larger than the cougar. Never take your eyes off the animal or turn your back. Do not crouch down or try to hide. If the animal displays aggressive behavior, shout, wave your arms and throw rocks. If the cougar attacks, try to stay on your feet and fight back aggressively with anything you can get your hands on (knife, hiking staff, backpack, rocks, etc.).

Before entering an area where bear or cougar sightings might occur, brief everyone in the party (including the children) about proper behavior in wild animal country. Carry the phone numbers of local authorities (park rangers, sheriff, etc.) and report any incident involving these dangerous animals. In an emergency, dial 911 if you have a cell phone and have reception in the area you are hiking or camping.

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