Know how to recreate outdoors responsibly and safely around wildlife

Know how to recreate outdoors responsibly and safely around wildlife

Conservation Northwest / Oct 28, 2021 / Public Lands, Recreation

Tips and resources for proper outdoor recreation practices when encountering wildlife, and while on the habitats threatened species depend on

Wildlife is the BEST part of the outdoors. Simply put, wildlife is what makes the wild, wild. Nothing quite compares to the thrill of observing wild animals on a trail, across a meadow, or at a nearby park.

It is important to always view wildlife from a distance and to give them plenty of space. Photo: National Park Service.

When you hike, climb, trail run, birdwatch or just go for a walk on public lands, you’re not entering a playground, you’re stepping onto habitat and becoming an active participant in an ecosystem.

There’s something positive, or at a minimum, intriguing about wildlife. Seeing wildlife helps us slow down and recognize that humanity isn’t the center stage of life on earth. Our “wild relations”, as some Indigenous people refer to wildlife, are a reminder that these landscapes are radically alive. Our lives and theirs are deeply intertwined with each other and the natural world.

As Conservation Northwest launches a new Wildlife-Recreation Coexistence Program, our hope is to support sustainable recreation that can go hand-in-hand with keeping the Northwest wild, including protecting, connecting and restoring wildlife and their habitat.

While recreating outdoors, we have a duty to do so responsibly, doing our part to keep natural spaces free of damaging impacts, and safe for humans and wildlife alike. With this in mind, we’ve compiled some tips to help keep wildlife and ourselves safe while spending time outdoors.

Store Food and Scented Items

Make sure that food items are secure from wildlife. Directly or indirectly feeding wildlife is a danger to both humans and animals. Photo: National Park Service.

There are great noses in the wild—much better noses than ours. Bears for instance, have a massive olfactory gland that allows them to smell far better than most mammals, sometimes even miles away. When spending lots of time outside or camping, there’s a good chance that animals will detect our food. It’s important to make sure it’s secure and out of reach for wildlife.

The big picture is that we want to keep our food secure from animals so they do not associate human presence with food sources. Big mammals can be dangerous when they are conditioned to view human activity with food. As the old adage says, a fed bear is a dead bear. So let’s keep wildlife safe, as well as ourselves, while we are recreating.

There are plenty of ways to keep your food and other scented items secure and out of reach of wildlife. Food storage locations should be about 200ft away from where you sleep.

A bear hang is a common method to secure food while camping outside. Used in forested terrain, this option requires 50-100ft of paracord, a carabiner and a stuff sack or bag. Bear hangs are constructed by hanging your food from a tree branch at least 12ft off the ground and 6ft away from the tree trunk. Learn more about how to construct and place bear hangs here.

Wildlife-proofing a site is vital for camping. Make sure to use safe food storage, like this food locker, when possible. Photo: National Park Service.

Bear canisters are particularly useful in alpine environments, or locations where trees are minimal. These cans keep all your smelly items and food  stored in a hard plastic that no animal can access. Bear canisters are actually required at some locations in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks.

Made with layers of strong fabric, an Ursac bag is a newer form of food security that is simple to use and ties around a tree. It has proven to be effective and useful while in bear country.

While at established campgrounds, a food locker may be present. Placing scented items and food within the locker ensures that wildlife are not drawn to your area. If you are car camping and no food locker is provided, keep your food and smelly items locked in the car, out of sight and preferably in your trunk.

Scented items to also add to your food storage include toothpaste, sunscreen, trash, bug spray, chapstick, snacks, deodorant, cookware, eating utensils, and anything else that might attract a critter.

Wildlife Safety

On exceedingly rare occasions if an animal feels threatened or surprised, it can become aggressive. Not just carnivores such as bears, cougars and wolves, but elk, moose, or mountain goats could prove dangerous if precautions and principles are not followed.

Below are some preemptive measures to help avoid negative wildlife encounters in the first place.

  • Hike with a friend – Human conversation is the best way to alert wildlife that you are approaching, especially while in forested terrain. If traveling solo, replicate this effect by speaking (or singing!) to yourself aloud periodically.
  • Keep pets on a leash – Keeping your pet on a leash and under control helps reduce the risk of bad encounters with wildlife. Unleashed or aggressive dogs can antagonize wildlife, or cause them to feel frightened, causing a more aggressive response from wildlife. Wolves and coyotes may also attack off-leash dogs perceived as intruders in their territory.
  • Practice Leave No Trace ethics – While all seven principles are important, pay special attention to keeping a campsite or rest area clean of food scraps and litter. Recreationists never want to feed wildlife directly or indirectly. Also, staying on durable surfaces and maintained trails also helps reduce the risk of surprising an animal.
  • Keep space between you and wildlife – If you are within 50 yards of wildlife, you are too close (yes, this means selfies with wildlife are a no-go!). Bigger animals, like bears, cougars, or moose require even more space, at least 100 yards is better.

On rare occasions when we do encounter large mammals in wild landscapes, it is oftentimes an incredible and positive experience, but it is important to keep ourselves and large critters safe when we do cross paths. Keep these steps in mind if you encounter wildlife to ensure a safe experience.

Camping in the backcountry, like this location in the North Cascades, requires special adherence to keeping food sources and smelly items safe and secure from wildlife. Photo: Vishal Gupta
  • Stay calm – It is important to not panic when seeing a bear, cougar, or other animal outside. Wildlife do not want to be close humans just as much as we don’t want to be too close to them. Staying calm also keeps the animal calm, meaning that encounters have a better chance of being safe and positive.
  • Use your voice – Some animals have solid hearing but poor eyesight, like a bear. Using our normal human voice is a great and non-aggressive way to let the animal know that you are nearby and do not mean any harm. Saying “Hey, bear!” or “Hey there [insert species name]!” in a clear voice is a good way to let any animal that you are human.
  • Be big – When an animal catches sight of us, it’s important to let it understand that we are also big mammals. By doing so, we non-verbally communicate that we are indeed one of those odd funny-looking large bipedal mammals that animals should not get too cozy around. We do not want to appear cowering or smaller than we are so stand tall, and go side by side with any hiking companions to help solidify the message.
  • Back away slowly – In an effort to give the animal space, back away SLOWLY. Do not run as that can trigger a chase. We move slowly to ensure that the encounter is as passive as possible. In some situations where the animal will not move, it may make more sense to navigate slowly around the animal, giving a very wide berth as you pass.

Bear spray is a useful tool to have as a last resort measure to avoid contact with wildlife, and not just bears. But it’s critical to know how to use it!

Acting as a powerful deterrent for any aggressive animal within 30 feet, this turbo-pepper spray can be discharged in the direction of the animal, angled slightly towards the ground, and sprayed in a back-and-forth motion. Bear spray is only to be used if the above steps are followed with no results, and the animal continues to approach.

Mother hiking with daughter at Mount Rainier National Park, aside Tipsoo Lake.