June 17, 2009

By Joyce Campbell

Black bears, cougars coyotes and gray wolves, though seldom seen, are our neighbors in the Methow Valley and however unlikely, surprise encounters with these large predators could potentially present dangers to people.

“Try to avoid sudden encounters,” said Dennis Ryan, Okanogan County Field Coordinator for the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Outreach Project. “Animals are usually aware of you first and yield to you and take off.” He said it’s important to make noise, especially on a trail with tight turns and brush. His wife and daughter like to sing, some people attach bear bells to their pack, and clapping and air horns are effective noisemakers. “Four or more people make so much noise you don’t have to worry about it,” said Ryan.

But what do you do if you come around a tight turn on a road or trail and find a black bear in your path, or a cougar or gray wolf?

“Turning and running is never a good option,” said Ryan. “You’ll never outrun them and running sparks the prey/predator chase thing.”

Ryan advocates the buddy system, although he likes to be out alone, too. Stopping, looking and listening is a good thing and you’ll see a lot more wildlife. If you are aware, you may also see crows or ravens and smell a carcass and avoid encountering a predator protecting its kill.

Ryan advocates keeping bear spray handy, not in the bottom of a pack. He said it will stop a charging animal in its tracks and it is safer than a gun. Most people are not good shots, especially if a bear is charging at 30 miles per hour. You don’t have to have a good aim; the spray is rated for 10 yards. “Most people figure out they’re being charged at 20 yards. It happens pretty fast.”

An eight-ounce pressurized can of Counter Assault Bear Spray will empty in seven seconds, according to Cal Treser, enforcement officer with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “When a bear runs through it he’s bound to get it.”

Treser said the problem with all pepper spray is that people don’t pay attention and spray into the wind and get themselves into a cloud of the pepper. “You only have seconds. Spray and move laterally so the bear doesn’t run over you. Don’t stand in the same spot, and be ready to spray again,” said Treser. He said a lot of people are embarrassed to carry pepper spray, but he would rather have it and not use it than need it and not have it.

“We can be too comfortable with black bears,” said Treser. One time he saw a cub cross the trail and climb a tree while the sow ran up a rockslide. He stopped to take a photo, but the cub started bawling and the sow turned around. He moved away to prevent a closer encounter.

Hardly anyone has trouble with bears or cougars, according to Ryan, and he does not worry about wolves at all. “It would be such an odd occurrence [for a wolf] to attack a person. More likely a small pet. If people have trouble it’s most likely getting stuck, falling and injuring themselves or having a heart attack or other medical problem.”

“We have to be careful, not be stupid,” said Treser. Animals will attack if they feel threatened, hungry or if their young are threatened. “For people to be so naïve that they think they can walk up to a wild animal and not have a confrontation is crazy.”

Any wild animal will attack, he said, including wolves. He attended a wildlife-human attack response team seminar last summer and heard a tale of a kayaker who used a knife to fight off an attacking wolf.

With a gray wolf pack residing in the Methow Valley, more people are having chance encounters with the large canines. Treser advises jumping up and down and waving at them. People misunderstand and feel threatened by the howling of wolves, said Treser. He said the wolves are just trying to locate each other.

“Wolves really are not a threat to humans,” said Mishon Catlin, who has seen wolves on several occasions near her family’s home near Twisp. She had a surprise encounter on a walk with her dogs about eight years ago when they came around a corner and a large, wolfish-looking animal was right in front of them. They all froze for a couple seconds. Her dogs didn’t try to greet, bark or give chase and the animal ran off into the woods.

Twisp-area resident Sue Baldwin has encountered wolves on two occasions at her home. She was feeding her horses at dusk last Christmas Eve and heard the wolves howling on the hillside 200 yards above her.

“They stopped howling and came straight at me, the whole pack,” said Baldwin, who ran for the house. Exactly one year earlier, a wolf-like canine met her at her front door at 5 a.m. as she returned home from working at Jamie’s Place.

“There was no snarling or growling. It seemed happy to see me.” She said she couldn’t logically think about it. Adrenaline kicked in and she ran into the house screaming, “Wolf, wolf!”

Cougars are more of a problem for Baldwin, who has learned to keep the cougars away from her horses by spraying them with a homemade cougar repellant. She sprays her horses with a mix of tea tree oil and soapy water and said there are no cougars now.

“You have to decide if an animal is predatory or just protecting their own,” said Treser. “If predatory, you have to fight back.” He said a black bear will attack to eat you, but a sow will protect her cubs. “If you see a cub up a tree, don’t be there when it starts bawling.”