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Staying alive: insight on surviving encounters with dangerous wildlife

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 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 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.”

WDFW researchers carry bear spray and a whistle when they trap to collar bears in the backcountry since they’re attracting the bears to a site.

“Our agency has never needed to deploy the spray in Washington, but it’s been used by professionals in other states,” Beausoleil said. “It’s cheap insurance.”

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website, for example, mentions a 2001 incident in which the agency’s mountain lion biologist and field technicians used bear spray to successfully turn away an attacking cougar.

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.

Responding to this reporter’s email, he said cow moose with young calves are more likely to attack a threat than flee. He has used bear spray once on a cow moose without a calf and four times on cows that had young. “Moose quickly learned to stay just out of range after they were well whacked with capsicum,” he said.

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 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.

Robin Redman, of Spokane, was with a group bicycling a rail trail in Canada last month when she returned to a trailhead that had attracted a pack of dogs.

“They charged us from all different angles, snapping at legs behind bike frames,” she said. “It was a pack frenzy and couldn’t be calmed down. This is the first time I ever used bear spray – and I’m delighted with the results.”

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.

A pistol might be a better choice in windy conditions while bear spray may have the edge in brushy conditions and in sudden encounters.

“An injured bear can become much more unpredictable, and thus more dangerous, particularly within the actual attack,” van Manen said.

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

“Of course, firearms can be an effective deterrent as well, but compared with bear spray additional factors play a key role and are often dismissed, such as level of proficiency of the shooter, probability of injury to other persons in the party and the value of a live vs. dead bear.”

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.

Bartlebaugh, who compiles information on bear attacks and use of bear spray, said it’s possible that Orr could have avoided a mauling if he had not spent time waving his hands and yelling. The bear reportedly got to about 25 feet away before he deployed the spray.

“The bear ran through the cloud and knocked him down,” Bartlebaugh said. “Nobody can fault Todd Orr, but the incident is another signal that the first deployment on a 500-pound bear charging at 30 mph should be earlier if possible.”

Orr said he had a pistol in his pack and regrets not having it handy to use.

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.


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