Ferry County, with its great variety of animal habitat and its relatively low human population is home to a plethora of wildlife. Two of the most majestic and perhaps the most feared animals found here are the black bear and the cougar. Though both animals are potentially dangerous at close range, the risk of an encounter is low and the risk of an attack even lower. Using a few precautions and knowing how best to react in the event of a close encounter will allow you to fear these two creatures less and respect and appreciate them more.
There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 black bears in Washington State. According to the Seattle PI (7/29/10), only one fatal bear attack and only three non-fatal attacks have been recorded in the state. Though the odds against an attack are clearly in your favor, the size and speed of a black bear make it an animal you do not want to mess around with.
The biggest problems with black bears occur when they have become habituated. Bears used to getting food from human sources, raiding garbage cans, campsites, and even bird feeders can become very aggressive. Take the necessary measures to prevent this problem. Take down your bird feeder in the spring. Make sure that your trash and compost (no meat in your compost) is inaccessible to bears. Keep your barbecue grill clean. Be cautious about feeding your pets outdoors. Be aware that rotting fruit under your fruit trees may attract bears. Rake up the unused fruit in the fall.
Avoid surprising bears. When hiking or walking in the woods, make noise. Sing or talk to companions. Have a bear bell attached to your pack. Many sources suggest carrying pepper spray, which can be a very effective deterrent to bears. If you do carry spray, make sure you know how to use it. Accidentally spraying yourself (avoid spraying into the wind) will make your situation much worse.
What should you do when you encounter a black bear near your home or in the woods? If you think that it does not notice you, slowly and quietly retreat. Or, stop and wait for it to move on. On a couple of occasions, I have been hiking when a bear has appeared in the trail ahead of me. Both times, I stopped and observed the bear until it moved across the trail back into the woods. Black bears, like most wild animals are generally shy and will avoid contact with humans. A mother with a cub, however, will aggressively protect her cub. Don’t get between them!
If a black bear approaches you, stand up and wave your arms, talking in a low voice. Avoid direct eye contact, as this may be threatening or challenging to the bear. Don’t run, unless you are only a few feet from a car or a house as bears are very fast runners. Black bears are good climbers, so don’t seek safety in a tree.
If the bear continues to approach, clap your hands, yell, make noise. In the unlikely event that it attacks you, do everything you can to fight back, with your hands and feet, using rocks and sticks to hit it in the nose, pepper spray if you have it. Black bears rarely attack, so when they do, they mean business. They will not stop their attack if you play dead. (Grizzlies, on the other hand, may lose interest if you play dead.)
There are probably around 3,000 cougars in Washington State. The chance of a fatal encounter with a cougar is less then the chance of being killed by a domestic dog, a poisonous snake, a lightning strike or even a bee sting. Since records have been kept, only 20 people in North America and one in Washington State (Okanogan County 1924) have been killed by cougars. 18 cougar attacks have occurred in Washington. Though attacks are still rare, growing human population and loss of habitat have contributed to an increase in cougar incidents in recent years. In 2009, a young hiker on Mt Abercrombie in the Colville National Forest in 2009 was attacked by a cougar. The five-year-old boy from Rossland, BC, whose mom fought off the cougar, fully recovered from the attack.
Because cougars travel long distances (males cover a home range of 50 to 150 miles), they do occasionally pass through more populated areas. In fact, a friend of mine in Republic had a cougar enter his house on a hot summer night and hide under his bed!
How can you avoid cougar encounters? Historically, a large percentage of attacks have been on small children, particularly a lone child or one accompanied only by other children. Therefore, the single most important precaution you can take is to not leave small children unattended. Also make sure your children are inside before dark.
Habituation, as with bears, is an issue. In the case of cougars, however, it is not so much the cougar who will be directly attracted to the unsecured garbage can, but it is rather the habituated prey species that will draw the cougar close to our homes. Cougars will follow deer, so discourage deer from coming close to your home with a deer fence, and avoid landscaping with plants that attract deer. If possible, keep pets inside at night and keep livestock secure. Don’t feed wild and feral animals, as these animals may become cougar magnets.
Avoid a cougar with kittens and avoid being around a cougar kill.
If you encounter a cougar, pick up small children and don’t run. Make eye contact, backing away slowly. Make yourself appear larger than the cougar, by raising your arms, spreading out your jacket. If the cougar becomes more aggressive, shout, throw things at it. Convince it that you are not prey. Do not run or climb up a tree.
If the cougar attacks, fight back in any way possible. Pepper spray in its face is effective.
In summary, the likelihood of an attack by a cougar is low, attack by a black bear even lower. However, with a little knowledge and preparation, you can reduce that likelihood even more and be better equipped to handle the unlikely possibility of an actual encounter. These measures may serve to reduce your fear and thereby increase your appreciation of these majestic animals and the important role they play in our local ecosystem.
A note on firearms. Cougars and black bears are game animals and may be hunted in season with a license. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “The killing of a cougar or black bear in self-defense or defense of another, should be reasonable and justified. A person taking such action must have a reasonable belief … [that] the action is the only reasonable available means to prevent that harm.”
For more info, visit http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living.htm for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife document “Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest.” This was the source of much of the information for this article.