The Saratoga Sun -

Living in large carnivore country


Max Miller

Children learn how to properly wield a potent predator dispersal tool.

The first canister of inert bear spray that Dan Thompson triggered in the parking lot of the Saratoga Town Hall was a dud.

"That's why you don't let them expire," Thompson told the assembled group of about 25. Thompson is the supervisor for the Wyoming Fish and Game Department's (WGFD) Large Carnivore Management Section. He explained that the chemical irritant in the canisters could retain its potency after expiration, but if the propellent leaked out the mace-like substance would be ineffective nevertheless.

The demonstration, which also included the firing of unexpired (but inert) bear spray, was the culmination of a two hour presentation entitled "Living in Large Carnivore Country" held at town hall 10 a.m. Saturday. Presenting alongside Thompson was Biff Burton, the Saratoga Game Warden and Robin Kepple, Public Information Specialist for the WGFD.

Most of the talk was focused on educating the public about bear and mountain lion safety, though there was a smaller section that dealt with wolves as well.

A wide variety of outdoor enthusiasts attended to learn about how to safely enjoy recreating in large carnivore country. There were hunters as well as hikers, transplants to the region who wanted to know more about the wildlife in their new environs, and families who wanted their children to understand how to deal with potentially dangerous situations.

On bears, Burton estimated that there were around 200 black bears residing in Carbon County, though he noted with a chuckle that "bears are kind of hard to count." All the experts stressed the importance of being aware while wandering the wilderness, and of hiking or hunting with others.

If a bear is encountered, the officials said the best course of action is to slowly back away while trying to avoid detection. If seen by a bear, a hiker should speak softly and calmly to the animal and avoid running away, climbing a tree or making quick movements. They should not shout or throw objects, and should deploy bear spray only if charged. Spray is effective at up to 30 feet away, and should be triggered for at least six seconds.

The three things a bear will defend, the officials said, were their young, a food cache or their personal space. Thompson said that "the fall is a very nervous time of year for us (at WGFD)," because conflicts can arise when bears get drawn to hunters' kills. Thompson stressed that people always have the absolute right to defend themselves, but that hunters cannot legally kill a bear that moves in on an elk or moose the hunter has killed.

All three officials also returned time and again to the importance of not "food conditioning" any large predators. This is what happens when bears learn that unsecured garbage cans can provide a free meal, or when mountain lions begin preying on mule deer that flock to the house of someone who feeds them.

To prevent food conditioning, campers should cook at least 100 yards from their tents and homeowners should be vigilant about keeping food sources inaccessible. "I'm happy if we don't have to set a trap," Thompson told the crowd. Once they become food conditioned though, "we're going to have to go in and remove that animal," Thompson continued.

"My advice is, don't take too long to call us," Burton said. He noted that early intervention can prevent a bear or mountain lion from becoming a problem animal that has to be killed, but that once an animal expects humans to provide food the creatures are likely to endanger people.

"Your cooking smells and picnics are attracting wildlife," Burton reminded the group. The game warden was adamant about the pleasures to be had enjoying the great outdoors, but emphasized that awareness is crucial. As an example, Burton said that hunters should know that when they blow an elk horn "you're also calling predators, not just other elk."

Wyoming's wild spaces are one of its most treasured resources, but they are also places that demand vigilance of those who venture into them. "Mountain lions are here to stay, bears are here to stay – and so are people," Thompson said. "I want kids enjoying the wilds of Wyoming but I want them to be safe out there too."


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