Staying alive: insight on surviving encounters with dangerous wildlife

When encountering a chasing animal in the wilderness, running away is not the safe play. Doug Kelley and Rich Landers / Photo Illustration

Author Rich Landers holds a canister of bear spray while on a hike. Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review

Snakes: Just leave them be
Rattlesnakes don’t go looking for trouble. When disturbed, they generally sound a rattling alarm as their way of saying leave me alone.
“People can avoid snakebites by watching where they walk and put their hands when scrambling through rocks, brush or woodpiles,” a staff naturalist said at a February program in Grand Canyon National Park.
Up to 70 percent of reptile bites are provoked by the person bitten, based on cases seen by the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. Most of them tend to involve males under the age of 25 who have been drinking and showing off, the naturalist said.
Never handle a snake, even a dead one, she said, noting that for several hours after death, “reflex strikes” can occur.
– Rich Landers

Don’t run — not from a charging wild animal or the facts, wildlife experts say.

Increasing numbers of outdoor recreationists in the West are being attacked or threatened by bears, cougars, wolves and other critters such as moose, mountain goats and elk.

How a hiker, biker, camper or other outdoors enthusiast handles a close call could mean the difference between an exhilarating experience and tragedy.

In the 1980s, Washington state wildlife officials considered pressing charges against a Blue Mountains big-game hunter who reported killing a cougar in self-defense.

The investigating wildlife police said the state hadn’t documented a cougar attack in more than half a century. It was unlikely, they said, that normally secretive cougars, also known as mountain lions, would be aggressive to a human. But the hunter’s story prevailed, even though he didn’t have a cougar license, and the case was dropped.

Since then, reports of cougar encounters have been confirmed in Washington nearly every year, topped last month by the fatal attack on a mountain biker near North Bend. It was the second fatal attack in 94 years.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s lead bear and cougar specialist says the increase in encounters is a matter of more people rather than more cougars.

“In 1980, Washington’s human population was 4.2 million, and since then it’s grown by a million people every decade,” said Rich Beausoleil, who’s researched large carnivores for 20 years. “Since the ’90s, the number of people involved in outdoor recreational activities has exploded, increasing the chances that somebody will have an encounter.

“The May 18 cougar attack and fatality made my heart ache for all involved,” Beausoleil said. “The animal was found and killed; now it’s our job to learn from the incident to help people avoid more tragedies.”

Stealthy hunters who hide in camo and use calls that sound like prey are at higher risk for encounters with bears, cougars and other wildlife.

Mountain bikers and trail runners who move through the woods at high speeds also are highly vulnerable, Beausoleil said.

In 2016, Kalispell, Mont., mountain biker Brad Treat was killed by a grizzly after hitting the bear at high speed as he came around a brushy corner. The official report noted that Treat’s speed of more than 20 mph gave neither him nor the bear time to react before impact, and the bear reacted instinctively.

“The data indicate fast but quiet-moving (recreationists) are more likely to surprise an animal and they’re more likely to trigger a chase — two things you want to avoid,” Beausoleil said.

The veteran wildlife researcher has several recommendations for recreationists to improve their already good odds of avoiding an animal attack.

First, reduce the element of surprise by being aware of surroundings, making noise, slowing down and calling out or using a whistle to make your presence known at corners, avalanche slide zones and other areas of short visibility.

“And carry bear spray,” he said.

Bear spray is a 2 percent concentration of capsaicinoids derived from hot red pepper extracts. This substance irritates the membranes of the eyes, nose and lungs, causing them to swell and burn.

“Bear spray — I wish they called it ‘wildlife spray,’ ” Beausoleil said. “It will deter grizzlies, moose — anything with mucous membranes.”

Agitated moose also respond to bear spray, says Joel Berger, wildlife research biologist based at Colorado State University. Berger has saved his butt several times using bear spray on the largest and most unpredictable of the deer species. He’s authored several books and some of these accounts are in “The Better to Eat You With,” a fascinating read about predators and prey.

A group of humans is a proven deterrent to critter encounters. Bear and cougar attacks are exceedingly rare on tight groups. However, a group that spreads out opens opportunity for predators.

In 2009, a British Columbia family day hiking in Pend Oreille County in Washington state had stretched out on an Abercrombie Mountain trail. The father and daughter were ahead about 50 yards followed by the mother with a 5-year-old boy lagging only 20 feet behind her.

A cougar lurking in a patch of brush just off the trail seized the moment to spring and take down the boy. The mother charged at the cougar and beat it with her metal water bottle until it let go of the boy’s neck. It retreated only a few feet. As it glared at the mom, she threw the water bottle and made a direct hit, convincing the cat, estimated at 80 pounds, to look for easier prey.

The boy was treated at a hospital for relatively minor wounds.

Officials say the family probably never would have known the cougar was in the area had they been in a close group as they hiked.

“Don’t run!” is the firmest of rules in wildlife encounters, Beausoleil said.

Running — whether it’s a human or an off-leash pet dog — often triggers a chase instinct in large predators as well as moose.

In the case of a charging moose, running to a nearby tree could be justified in order to move around the tree as a shield from being pummeled by deadly hooves.

But in the case of a bear, cougar or wolf, running away leaves you tempting and defenseless against predators that no human can outrun.

If a bear charges in a surprise encounter, stay still and stand your ground, Yellowstone National Park rangers recommend. Most of the time, the bear is likely to break off the charge or veer away. If you run, you’re likely to trigger a chase. If you have bear spray, this is the time to use it. Start spraying the charging bear when it is about 60 feet away if possible.

Only as a last resort, when contact is certain, do you fall to the ground on your belly and play dead, Yellowstone officials say.

In a cougar encounter, stand tall and look big and imposing, Washington Fish and Wildlife biologists say. Fight back if attacked.

Wolf attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, but tense encounters, especially with hunters and people hiking with dogs, are becoming more common in Idaho and other areas where wolf populations have recovered. Bear spray, which is highly effective on canines, offers a recreationist assurance and comfort in wolf country.

Gun advocates who prefer pistols over bear spray have focused on the 2016 incident of Todd Orr, a Montana hunter who was scouting for game when he surprised a grizzly and was charged. Orr used bear spray, but the grizzly came through the cloud and mauled him. The bear left but emerged later and mauled Orr again on his way out of the mountains.

Gun writer Dean Weingarten during the 2018 Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas used Orr’s ordeal to illustrate what he called “junk science” used by state and federal agencies that recommend using bear spray to deter attacks.

But data from a peer-reviewed report indicate bear spray is 90 percent successful in deterring a bear attack compared with 84 percent for handguns and 76 percent for long guns, said Frank van Manen, supervisory research wildlife biologist for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team based in Missoula.

“I may be convinced otherwise, but there are simply no scientific data to do so at this moment,” he said.

Bear spray is the preferred option in most cases, he said.

Under duress, bear spray, which does not require pinpoint accuracy, is more practical in most situations, he said.

Although no deterrent is perfect, bear spray is considered a win-win — most cases result in survival of both the human and the bear (and its cubs), he said.

Too many incidents involving lethal force in grizzly encounters could lead to additional restrictions on recreational access into some areas of public lands to protect the bears.

“Every situation is different and worth evaluating,” said Chuck Bartlebaugh of the Be Bear Aware Campaign in Missoula, Mont.

Deadly force in the heat of a bear or cougar attack is risky for all involved.

In 2011, Nevada hunters Steve Stevenson, 39, and his friend Ty Bell mistakenly shot and wounded a grizzly bear while hunting black bears in northwestern Montana. As they tracked the bear, it emerged from the brush and attacked Stevenson. Bell used his rifle to shoot the bear as it mauled his pal, but the bullet apparently struck bone, redirecting the lead down to wound and kill Stevenson.

“Bear spray works without killing,” Bartlebaugh said, “but nobody claims it will work in every situation.”

It has to be handy and users must practice deploying the spray quickly.

Mountain bikers should have the spray on their person rather than mounted to the bike. In the case of a crash involving an animal, the bike could land several feet way, he said.

“Bear spray,” as opposed to less effective products labeled “pepper spray,” is designed to turn back an attacking grizzly bear, or at least to shorten the length and severity of an attack, he said.

The EPA requires products labeled bear spray to be packaged in cans of 7.9 ounces or more. Based on the many incident reports he’s compiled, Bartlebaugh recommends 10.2-ounce cans with a duration of at least 9 seconds and range of at least 30 feet.

“Preventing a bear attack may take multiple bursts,” he said. “And then you have to get out of there.”

Having bear spray handy also removes the temptation to run from a bear, cougar or other animal.

“Unless you have a vehicle right there and a lot of distance between you and the animal, running is almost never a good choice,” he said. “But with bear spray, you can be more confident to stand your ground.”

A Montana grizzly bear researcher seriously mauled by a grizzly bear in a gory surprise encounter was trained and equipped to survive.

Amber Kornak, 28, was alone in the Cabinet Mountains checking bear DNA sampling stations on May 17. She said she would frequently blow a whistle and clap her hands as she worked to alert any bears of her presence.

Perhaps owing to wind, rain and her closeness to a noisy stream, she still unknowingly moved to within 12 feet before surprising a grizzly, which attacked instinctively.

“We spooked each other,” Kornak told the Associated Press. “I got down on the ground and pulled out my bear spray. He bit down on my skull, and I just reached over with my left arm and sprayed him and he was gone.

“The bear spray saved my life,” she said.

This story first appeared in The Spokesman-Review.