Monday, April 10, 2006

Close encounters- Wildlife education in Wyoming

By KATHLEEN ST. JOHN - Star-Tribune staff writer

Wyoming's wildlife attracts thousands of visitors to the state each year. And sometimes, the visitors attract wildlife. Hungry bears, stealthy mountain lions and a growing wolf population make encounters between humans and potentially dangerous animals more likely. That's why the Wyoming Game and Fish Department presented its "Staying Safe in Bear, Lion and Wolf Country" workshops across the state this spring.

About 20 people gathered for the March 25 workshop in Casper to learn the best ways to deal with Wyoming's largest predators. All three species cross paths with humans, especially in the spring and summer, when people take to the hills for warm-weather recreation.

Della Works has lived in Wyoming since 1963, but she took the workshop for the first time this year. "I hike and backpack a lot in bear country," Works said. "The more I can learn and be educated about bears, the better I feel."

A major component of the agency's safety program is the old command, "Don't feed the animals." Wild animals shouldn't be fed on purpose, or even unintentionally -- that's why a lengthy portion of last month's workshop discussed techniques for keeping campers' food out of the mouths of wildlife. Bears, especially, will eat just about anything, so United States Forest Service ranger Mark Hinschberger offered advice on storing food in camp, whether with bear boxes, in cars or by hoisting containers over tree limbs. Keeping food away from bears is a great way to avoid encounters, but no method is completely bear-proof, said Hinschberger.

Game and Fish Bear Management Officer Mark Bruscino provided insight into the bear brain, talking about the warning signs bears display before they charge (like huffing and slapping the ground) and what to do if a bear takes a run at you. Bear pepper spray is one of the best defenses, he said. It's effective, nonlethal and, unlike a gun in an emergency situation, easy to shoot accurately.

Works said she's spied bears on her hikes, but they're usually at a distance and preoccupied. "(I've) seen bears up in the Grand Tetons," she said. "They've never bothered us. They've usually been eating. That makes me feel comfortable." She also hikes in large groups, but she said that even the safety-in-numbers approach can get spooky. "Sometimes you get behind the group or way ahead," said Works. "We usually have a whistle, but if it's windy or you're over a hill ... it can be a little scary at times even if you're with a group."

That's why Works said she keeps pepper spray at the ready -- until the workshop, though, she was using human-strength pepper spray. "I didn't know they made a bear spray ... I had just regular pepper spray," she said. "I'm changing my pepper spray ... but I think I'll have my friend and I go out and practice with it." It's a good idea: Bear pepper spray cans are bulky and spray their contents with a surprising amount of force. They also have a safety that must be disengaged before firing.

Robin Kepple, the department's information and education specialist for the Casper region, also discussed the more-elusive mountain lions and wolves, outlining their habits and predation styles. Wolves, she said, present "little danger" to humans. This is the first year that Game and Fish included wolves in the workshop, said Kepple. "With the wolves up in Yellowstone, they're starting to see signs of wolves being fed," she said. "They're approaching tour buses, snow cat machines ... that's the last thing we want to see."

With the growing popularity of outdoor recreation, education is a vital tool. Works, who backpacks with her grandchildren, said she hopes to share the knowledge she gained at the "Bear Country" workshop with the younger members of her family. "It's for protection of the grandchildren, too," she said. "I want them to love the outdoors and know what to do." "I don't think you can ever learn enough if you like the backcountry."

More advice on wildlife encounters at:

  • Casper Star-Tribune
  • 4 Comments:

    Anonymous Val Jones said...

    As a Wyoming resident, my only comment would be that everyone set aside their emotional commitment to the wolf and look to a rational resolution. Wyoming's wildlife is being systematicaly eradicated as a result of wolf reintroduction. Our moose are in a tailspin as are our bighorn sheep and elk. I cannot understand how we can place one species above so many others.

    4/15/2006 12:16 AM  
    Anonymous Val Jones said...

    As a Wyoming resident, my only comment would be that everyone set aside their emotional commitment to the wolf and look to a rational resolution. Wyoming's wildlife is being systematicaly eradicated as a result of wolf reintroduction. Our moose are in a tailspin as are our bighorn sheep and elk. I cannot understand how we can place one species above so many others.

    4/15/2006 12:16 AM  
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