With the recent unfortunate bear encounter up Hunter Creek and Steve Skinner’s column about the lion on his porch, or any number of daily headlines of calamitous wildlife encounters, you may be asking yourself, “How do I safely take a walk and what should I do when I see a lion or bear?”
My local conservation nonprofit, WildiZe Foundation, has an educational podcast, “Our Wild World.” There, leading wildlife experts and I are discussing these very issues. It’s a perfect opportunity for our valley residents and visitors to learn what we can do to avoid negative wildlife encounters and to preserve our local wildlife populations.
The first step is learning to look at your hike from the wildlife’s perspective. Let’s take a moment to recognize that our backyard is actually the living room of the bears, mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, moose and other animals. When we venture into their living room on a regular basis an encounter is not an “if” but a “when.” As we explore outside, we have the responsibility to be good houseguests, making informed choices and being prepared for anything, whether just walking your dog down the street or on a three-day hike.
I recently interviewed Dr. Quinton Martins, director of Living with Lions in Northern California, on the increase in mountain lion sightings and close encounters. He tells us that to best avoid a potentially harmful encounter, we need to understand how the carnivore thinks, to see the world from their perspective. Predators and prey are constantly on the move, looking for food, shelter, mates and rest. On top of that, we learn from cougar biologist Phil Johnston that we humans have drastically changed the landscape and our rural-residential areas have everything needed by deer, thus inviting the predators closer to us. Combine this with the fact that wildlife is not inert. It is constantly learning, adapting and responding to our actions and our presence in their space, and nature often bites. We don’t know what happened to the lion or bear the last time it encountered a human, but that encounter certainly can affect the next person down the line, neighbor or hiker.
Imagine that you are a bear, you have just woken up and you are hungry. It was a long harsh winter and the food sources you need are not yet available. You’re searching through your and a lot of other bears’ territories, and they chase you out and you have to keep moving. You find your precious time to eat for energy and the calories you need to survive is often and unpredictably interrupted by the humans. You do not know when or where you can safely be in an area, so you’re very skittish and irritable.
Then there’s us humans. Some bears have experienced us before and some have not. As much as we may love to see a bear or lion, remember that nature is not sentimental, it does not love us back. Wildlife wants to avoid us. As we blur the lines between wild and “open spaces,” it is our responsibility to ensure we do our best to “haze” wildlife from our doors, not provide food and give it a negative response to being near us. As Colorado Parks and Wildlife states: “Let wildlife know you’re there. Look big. Don’t act like prey. Make noise, throw stones and when necessary, fight back.”
The best advice I can give is to pay attention to your surroundings and learn to listen to nature. That means lose the earbuds, hike with a friend, make some noise, wear bells, but also take time in safety to listen to what nature is telling you and let body and soul connect. In other words, enjoy the journey, not just the destination.
Here are a few additional practical tips: consider carrying bear spray and practice with an expert to know how to use it. Understand and be aware of an animal’s “fight or flight” zone — that’s the difference between the distance you have to safely get away or start protecting yourself. Never approach wildlife. Always maximize the distance between you and a predator. If you and the animal are both surprised, then keep your wits about you, make noise, yield the trail and do your best to de-escalate and get out, or be prepared to fight. Carnivores are likely more active at dawn and dusk, when it’s cool, but can be active at all times.
CPW has additional practical information about avoiding lions and bears, and what to do if an animal approaches you despite your best efforts.
We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world to recreate and experience nature. Reducing our impact and pressure on the wild translates into maintaining healthy functioning ecosystems, which is essential for us all.
Eli Weiss, of the WildiZe Foundation, has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1963. With 40 years of wildlife conservation experience in sub-Saharan Africa, she works closely in carnivore conflict mitigation and has had many peaceful encounters with bears in the yard.