Thursday, March 9, 2006

Safety in Bear and Cougar Country

Black Bear tracks from last spring's late snow melt on the Tonga Ridge

A recent article in the Seattle PI on winter getaway hikes remarked on the movement of cougars down from the higher elevations of the Cascades to lower altitudes in search of food. On a recent snow hike of mine I was somewhat surprised to find bear tracks in the snow this early in the season. I think a reminder of bear (and cougar) protocol is in order if you plan on going hiking or camping. Rick

(adapted from the BC Government Chilliwack Forest Service Recreation Brochure, with additonal material, including my own in red)

Bears usually avoid people, but they can be attracted to human food and garbage. For your own safety, take the following precautions: •Avoid all contact with bears - never feed or approach bears or other animals. Don’t try to get close for that perfect photo!

•Dogs can annoy bears and bring them back to their owners. It’s best to leave your dog at home or keep it on a leash.

Be Camper Smart:
  • •Never store food in tents.
  • •Store ALL food (including pet food and game meat) in the trunk of your vehicle, or put it in a sealed container and hang it from a branch at least 12 feet above the ground and more than a yard from the tree trunk.
  • •Sleep at least 150 feet from the area where you store and cook food. Pitch your tent away from dense bush, lake shores, stream banks and animal trails.
  • •Keep clothes and gear free of food odours, and dispose of dishwater at least 300 feet from your campsite.
  • Do not cook strong-smelling or greasy foods. Burn out tin cans after a meal if you have a fire.
  • •Keep your campsite clean. Put all garbage in bearproof containers or pack it out. Never bury garbage - bears can dig it up.
  • Don’t use or pack strong-smelling or herbal scented perfumes, deodorants, shampoos, etc.
  • •For the ladies, use extra caution if you are menstruating and choose to camp in bear country.

Don’t Surprise Bears:
  • •Carry a bell, sing, talk or make noise along a trail to avoid startling bears.
  • Never hike alone, or after dark.
  • •Never come between a female bear and her cubs.
  • •Stay clear of occupied bear habitat - berry patches, avalanche chutes or streams with spawning salmon. Leave an area the way you came if you see fresh signs of bears such as tracks, droppings or diggings.
  • •Be wary of hiking in high winds. A bear — or a cougar — may not be able to pick up your scent and have time to move off before you come across it.

Close Encounters:
  • •Never run from bears.
  • •BE HUMAN. Never imitate a bear, or make “bear” noises. Back up slowly and speak in a loud, low voice while waving your arms. Avoid direct eye contact. Stay calm.
  • •Return to your vehicle or climb a tree as high as you can.
  • •Drop something, such as your backpack, to distract the bear in case it decides to charge. Almost all charges are “bluff charges.”

If you are attacked: how you respond should depend on the species of bear and the circumstances. Black bears and grizzlies behave differently and may have different motives.

Aggressive bears are usually defending their territory, their food or their young. Predatory bears, on the other hand, are looking for food.
  • Grizzly Bears - it is best to play dead. Struggling will encourage attack. Drop, curl your knees up to your chest and place your hands behind your neck.
  • Black Bears (common in the Cascades) - Fight Back! Use everything you’ve got - sticks, rocks, hands and feet. With predatory black bears your best chance is to fight them off and chase them away.
Carry Protection: •In case of meeting an aggressive bear, carry noisemakers and pepper-spray or bear-spray (an effective deterrent).

  • Cougars rarely attack people; in fact, they usually avoid human contact. However cougar attacks do occur. You should keep a close eye on small children and watch your pets — they are both easy prey for cougars.
Cougar tracks near the end of the BPA maintenance road below Scenic Hot Springs at the 3,000 ft elevation. This is a known traverse area for deer. There is a known cougar den in the rockslide area to the east of the springs around 4,200 ft. Cougar are nocturnal creatures, shy and avoiding humans. They hunt generally close to dawn or dusk. The tri-lobe of the footpad is a giveaway of cougar tracks; dogs tracks, while similar, lack the three lobes at the back.

If attacked by a cougar:
  • Fight back using sticks, stones, hands and feet! Cougars have been driven away by people fighting back with rocks, sticks, binoculars and even their bare hands.
  • Don'’t “play dead” in case of cougar attack.
  • Do not crouch or bend over: In Nepal, a researcher studying tigers and leopards watched the big cats kill cattle and domestic water buffalo while ignoring humans standing nearby. He surmised that a human standing up is just not the right shape for a cat's prey. On the other hand, a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a four-legged prey animal.
  • Do not run from a lion: Running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up if possible so they don't panic and run. Although it may be awkward, pick them up without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion.
  • Do all you can to appear larger: Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you are wearing one or lift you backpack over your head. Again, pick up small children. If the animal does not flee and shows signs of aggression (crouching with ears back, teeth bared, hissing, tail twitching and hind feet pumping in preparation to jump) be more assertive. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. The idea is to convince the mountain lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to it.

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