SHERIDAN — Clifford Reed’s evening started out normal enough. The owner of Tongue River Honey was checking on one of his bee yards on Wolf Creek, located south of Sheridan, when he ran into an uninvited guest.
One minute he was walking through the darkness, and in an instant the Dayton resident was face-to-face with a black bear almost close enough to shake his hand.
Luckily, it turned out the bear was just as afraid of Reed. Caught red-handed, the bear took off in a hurry.
“That black bear went through the tightest barbed-wire fence you’ve ever seen trying to get away,” he said with a laugh. “That wire sounded like a guitar string.”
While Reed tells the tale of his closest encounter with good humor, he’s no stranger to the damage predators can cause in Sheridan County. He lost eight beehives in 2014 and 28 in 2013. With a market value of about $400, replacing hives is not cheap.
Fact is, as humans branch further and further into the wilderness, confrontations with bears, wolves and mountain lions are inevitable. The key to leaving such an encounter with life and limb is preparation and awareness, Wyoming Game and Fish Department personnel told attendees at a large carnivore safety class Tuesday night.
WGFD Bear-Wise Coordinator Dustin Lasseter began the presentation with an overview on grizzly and black bears.
“We’ve documented almost a 40 percent expansion of bears in the ecosystem from 2004 to 2010, so our population has really expanded pretty quickly,” he said.
Black bears are abundant in the Bighorns and throughout much of Wyoming. The animals are moving farther east into the Black Hills, and Lasseter predicted a stable population in that area within the next five to 10 years. Grizzly bears, despite reports to the contrary, don’t yet call Sheridan County home.
“There are not grizzly bears in the Bighorns,” he said. “We hear that every year. We hear people say they’ve seen them, and when we go up there to look for tracks and bear sign, we haven’t confirmed any grizzly bears. I think it’ll be pretty obvious when there are grizzly bears in the Bighorns — there will be dead sheep everywhere. That’ll be a pretty strong indicator.”
With bears more plentiful than any time in recent history, conflicts are occurring more often each year. The WGFD preaches prevention first, meaning those heading to the backcountry should take steps to avoid confrontation with a hungry bear.
Examples include making noise while hiking to avoid surprising an animal, keeping a clean camp and properly storing attractants (food, toothpaste or anything with an odor) while in the wilderness.
In the case where conflict is unavoidable — think coming around a bend in the trail and startling a sow and cubs — Lasseter showed a video on the proper techniques.
The first step is to diagnose whether the bear is defensive or predatory. Did you frighten the bear? Is it making noises showing it’s clearly agitated? In these cases, a defensive bear may bluff charge or even attack to ensure the perceived threat is eliminated.
Humans should avoid eye contact, talk in a low voice and back away slowly to avoid close contact. If the bear still charges, bear spray or another deterrent could be discharged. If taken to the ground, people should cover the back of the neck and lie face down with feet spread slightly. If the bear rolls you over, roll again so you’re still face down, protecting vitals.
A predatory animal, on the other hand, will show a keen interest and focus specifically on the hiker or outdoorsman. This behavior, Lasseter explained, is not normal. The bear has likely been food-conditioned and sees the person as a potential food source.
Predatory animals must be shown the person is not food. Look big, yell, stomp feet — anything to get the bear away. Again, a deterrent may be necessary. And if the bear does attack, attendees were told to fight back using any means necessary.
Bear attacks are extremely rare, Lasseter said, and practicing such a situation is difficult.
“A lot of this stuff is just being mentally prepared,” he added.
Ninety-nine percent of bear encounters result in the animal simply leaving the area, Lasseter said.
The bear portion of the program also involved grizzly and black bear identification, an important step for hunters in northwest Wyoming. For more information on bear regulations, hunting or even to take an identification test, visit the WGFD at wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/home.aspx.
Cody WGFD large carnivore biologist Luke Ellsbury presented next. He focused on wolves and mountain lions, both of which have been found on this side of the Bighorns.
Ellsbury talked about management and conflict. For mountain lions, managing means studying populations and shooting for objectives through hunting quotas. The Bighorns, an active recreation area with many nearby towns and cities, are a “sink” area where the WGFD intends to decrease cougar numbers.
As for conflict, mountain lions rarely attack humans. In fact, Game and Fish has no record of a fatality due to these animals in Wyoming.
“Most of our conflict does come from livestock,” Ellsbury said. “It’s mostly sheep we get from lions. We do get a little cattle depredation from lions each year, but it’s very minimal.”
So the WGFD manages the populations as such, working to avoid mountain lion depredations and encouraging residents not to feed deer that draw lions into urban and residential areas.
In the instance when a person is faced with a mountain lion attack, humans should treat the animal like a predatory bear. Fight back and use bear spray or a deterrent if necessary. Never run away.
Wolves, meanwhile, remain a political lightning rod in Wyoming after being relisted as an endangered species by a federal judge in September 2014. The WGFD no longer manages the animal, and currently wolves can only be killed legally in defense of human life, Ellsbury said.
Most wolf conflicts, like cougars and bears, involve livestock.
“Last year, we lost 61 head of livestock — both sheep and cattle — to wolves in Wyoming,” he said.
Wolf numbers are growing and could reach 200 animals by the end of the year, WGFD officials estimate. Wolves can be highly territorial, and Ellsbury said people should avoid having dogs loose in known wolf territory, especially near a den.
Wolf attacks are extremely uncommon, but if facing a threatening animal, treat it like a mountain lion. Generally, the animal might be sick or predatory, so the priority is to fight back and get out of the area.
The WGFD will hold large carnivore workshops around Wyoming through the rest of April. The next presentations are coming up on April 9 in Cody and Douglas. For more information, contact the WGFD Sheridan Regional Office at 672-7418.