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Wildlife in Wild Places

Posted in: Guides
By Trent Whiting
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Wildlife in Wild Places

While hiking late at night with a friend, our headlamps glanced over a pair of small shiny dots on the trail ahead of us. The reflection of a pair of eyes gazed back at us, low to the ground and somewhat close together. Although the beam of our lights were strong enough to reflect light off the animal’s eyes, there wasn’t enough light to illuminate the figure behind those eyes. Because they were close together and near the ground, our imaginations cycled through the worst-case scenarios first. Because of the area we were in, our first thought was that it could be a bear. We called out to it, trying to communicate to it that we could see it and we knew it could see us. We waited for a while, hoping our voices would encourage it to move along and away from where we were. Instead, a second pair of eyes appeared. These somewhat taller off the ground and further apart from each other. We continued discussing what they could be, expanding our list of possibilities to elk, deer, and moose. My friend decided that tossing a rock in their direction might encourage the pair of animals to move off the path. We heard movement from the pair after tossing the first rock but could still see eyes. So, we tossed a second rock. This did the trick. The animals moved off the path and we began to creep forward, careful to be respectful of their space. We could hear them, just off the path and could tell we were getting closer to them. Finally, our headlamps shone on the figures and we could see that there was a cow and a calf moose. 

Max the Moose, Captured by Trent Whiting

Thankfully, the animals weren’t acting aggressive toward us. We had both paid attention to reports of animal activity in the area and knew some signs to look for in case a moose decided to get aggressive. We watched for its ears laying back and the hair on its shoulders, neck and back to stand up and appear agitated. We talked to it softly, not yelling throughout the encounter. Even though moose aren’t predators, we still wanted to be cautious because of their size and ability to defend themselves. We did stop to take a picture of them, because we felt safe enough to do so and believe encounters with wildlife should be treasured experiences. 

 

When hiking in the wild, you’re sure to come across wildlife. Knowing how to interact or not interact with which animals and during what seasons is exhausting sometimes. Animal migrations mean that different species may or may not be where you are depending on the time of the year. Their attitudes could be different based on mating seasons. The best practice is to research the area you’re going into before you get there to know exactly what to do around wildlife and avoid any unwanted encounters. In many places, you can observe wildlife from a safe distance even in the protection of your car. A lot of the time, your car is an excellent place to seek shelter especially from larger animals like bison and moose. But if your car isn’t around, using a tree to get between you and the animal can be a good strategy for animals that are charging you. 

Photograph by Bridget Miller: Marketing Director, Liberty Mountain

Different animals respond differently to your actions. Some animals, like a black bear, you want to fight back using bear spray or noise. But you wouldn’t use this same strategy  with a moose as that will likely encourage it to continue its attack. Detailed instructions for what to do when encountering a specific animal aren’t included here. It’s far more effective for you to research the animals that will be in the area you are recreating and make a plan for what to do when you are there. What is included here are some guidelines that apply to many types of animals that will help you reduce unwanted encounters with wildlife both big and small. 

 

Animals are constantly looking for food sources, an important tool they use to find food is their sense of smell. Anything that smells can draw an animal's attention especially food and waste (both trash and human/pet waste). Leaving these items unattended is a great way to draw in unwanted guests. When camping near a car, keeping them locked up in a cooler or in the car itself is a great way to protect yourself. In the backcountry, a bear canister is a great tool you can use. Or, hanging scented items in a bag from a tree that you can leave later is a good strategy. Make sure to hang the bag high about 100 yards away from camp off the ground (10 feet if you can manage) and far away from the trunk of the tree (seven feet would be ideal) so it can’t be reached by climbing animals.

Photograph by Bridget Miller: Marketing Director, Liberty Mountain

Giving animals space is arguably the best way to avoid aggravating them. Yellowstone National Park recommends giving predators like bears and wolves 100 yards of space (about a football field) and 25 yards (about a swimming pool, the kind you swim laps in) for all other wildlife. In a surprise encounter, this isn’t possible. Depending on the animal, trying to retreat to this distance might not be the best maneuver. To avoid surprise encounters, stay aware. Use your senses to detect signs of animal activity. Your ears can be one of your greatest tools when detecting animals around you as you’ll often hear them moving before you see them.  

 

Another tried and true idea is to make noise while you hike. I remember a hike I went on in Ontario Canada with a father and his young sons. The father had taught the sons to carry small sticks with them and bang them on trees as they passed by while shouting a “whoop, whoop”. The boys explained to me that this was a mating call for Yellow Top, who was Bigfoots blonde, Canadian cousin. The father explained to me that this was his fun way of teaching his boys to make noise while in the woods and that he would teach them when they were older the more detailed purpose for their noise making. Personally, I’m a fan of carrying a speaker and playing music with me when I hike; although I try to find balance so that I can still hear nature and try not to taint others’ experience. I usually choose a pace that causes me to breath heavy and I would rather save my breath for oxygenating myself instead of making noise. 

Photograph by Bridget Miller: Marketing Director, Liberty Mountain

In conclusion, wildlife is extremely cool and a big reason many people recreate in the wild. Finding ways to interact with animals safely is paramount for our protection as well as theirs. Leave No Trace becomes critical to both humans and animals. Traces humans leave behind can draw animals to them and create an unwanted encounter like leaving behind wrappers can have crumbs that animals can find. Animals becoming accustomed to trash humans leave can train them to be more comfortable approaching humans which often leads to unwanted encounters.  One last general principle is that animals are most active at dawn and dusk and these times of day have the most reported animal encounters. While there’s no shame in being afraid when something goes bump near you, there’s also something to be said about not letting strange noises ruin your enjoyment. Find a balance between awareness and fear that works for you and helps you enjoy nature. 

September 17, 2021
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