Imagine this: You’re riding your mountain bike along Red Grade Trails after a long day at work. The sun’s starting to set and there’s a cool breeze blowing in the air. There’s nothing around but you and nature. How you do feel? Peaceful? Relaxed? Happy? All those things, right? After all, that’s the beauty of the Bighorns we’re fortunate enough to experience any day we choose. It’s what we expect, right?
Continue to imagine: You’re zipping down the trail, you come around a corner, and there it is… a mountain lion! How do you feel? Scared? Nervous? Excited that you had the opportunity to see a creature that rarely lets itself be seen? All those things, right? That, too, is the beauty of the Bighorns we’re fortunate enough to experience any day we choose. Except seeing a mountain lion isn’t what we expect, right?
What you just imagined actually happened to Dustin Shorma this summer while biking on Red Grade Trails. Shorma, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department game warden, described the experience.
“I was riding at dusk,” Shorma said. “It was a hot day and it was cooling off, and I was riding on a north-facing slope. I expected to see a lion and I did.”
The lion ran off and Shorma kept biking.
“I made two more laps and never saw it again,” Shorma said. While it may be alarming to read that a mountain lion was on Red Grade Trails, Shorma had a very different feeling about his uncommon encounter.
“Seeing that lion made my week,” he said.
After all, Shorma, a Sheridan County native and game warden with 20 years experience, knows that places like Red Grade Trails and other parts of the Bighorns are home to loads of wildlife like lions.
“There’s a healthy deer population and it’s fantastic habitat. Lions are going to be there,” he reasoned.
The same goes for black bears, which, right now, are bellying up to the berry bar eating their fill before taking a long winter’s nap. When you come across chokecherries, plums and other fall fruits, Shorma said, “Don’t be surprised if there’s a bear there being a bear. It’s a function of their biology and time of year.”
The game warden said lions and bears, both, are “inherently curious” and “a function of living here.” And because of that, he stressed, “The responsibility is on us as recreators to do a little homework to know the inherent risks so you can minimize conflict and confrontation.”
“When you pop your ear buds in and are not paying attention, it’s like going down a dark alley at night,” he explained.
And encounters with wildlife on trails can happen because, as Shorma put it, “It’s easier for the animals to walk the trail than it is to creep through the puckerbrush.”
So, how can you minimize conflict and confrontation? According to WGFD:
• Be aware of your surroundings, keeping an eye out for fresh tracks, scat and other signs of carnivore activity.
• Recreate in groups and make yourself known to animals by talking and making noise.
• Wear bright-colored clothing so you look like a human (also helpful during hunting season).
And if you happen to meet a mountain lion or bear, WGFD advises:
• Keep children and pets close to adults.
• Never approach a lion or a bear.
• Stay calm, talk firmly and move slowly.
• Don’t run away and don’t turn your back.
• Do all you can to appear larger.
Shorma also recommends people carry bear spray. He said it’s proven to be an effective deterrent for bears, lions…even moose.
How does he know?
“I’ve never pepper sprayed a grizzly,” the seasoned game warden remarked, “but I have pepper sprayed a moose.”
It happened while he was working in Jackson. He responded to a call where a cow moose wasn’t allowing a family to leave their house. When he arrived there, the moose charged him full stop, and rather than reaching for a firearm, he grabbed his pepper spray.
“She locked it up and ran off,” he recalled. “Pepper spray that day saved me from a hospital bill.”
Why might an encounter with a moose go awry?
“They’re the biggest, baddest, toughest animal in the forest,” Shorma related. “A person is the least of their worries. The moose thinks it can stomp a mudhole in you.”
Having wildlife like lions, bears and moose around shouldn’t deter you from a fun day enjoying the beauty of the Bighorns. But you should take proper precautions while enjoying their beauty.
“The best part of living here is having a little bit of wildness,” he said and concluded, “but remember, it’s someone else’s home, too.”
For more information, see Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s website (wgfd.wyo.gov) and search for “Bear Wise Wyoming” and “Living in Large Carnivore Country.”
Chris Vrba is director of marketing and development for Sheridan Community Land Trust.