What a nice time of the year in the national forest. The grasses are tall, wildflowers are blooming, the lakes and streams are thawing and fish are waiting to be caught. Each year, thousands of people find their way to the Bighorns to explore and enjoy the land.
Cloud Peak Wilderness area is nestled in our forest and has miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and opportunities for fishing, camping and picture taking. Encounters with wildlife may occur and can be a sight to experience. A majority of the wildlife on our forest does not want to encounter humans and will take the opportunity to leave if they come into contact with people.
Planning prior to your outdoor activity is a must. The Bighorns do have black bear, mountain lions, moose and other animals that may be a cause of concern. Most people are concerned about encountering black bear when they are visiting the forest, so the following are a few guidelines and bits of information on what to do and what not to do if an encounter occurs.
Black bear will generally try to avoid people whenever possible but are very protective of their cubs. After having hibernated through winter and having their offspring in January to February, bears and their cubs will emerge hungry and ready to consume various types of food. Black bear eat the following in their diet: meat – about 15 percent; fish — about 1 percent; vegetation — about 75 percent; and insects approximately 10 percent.
Black bear have an extremely keen sense of smell and are drawn to the smells of food and beverages, and non-food items such as toothpaste, soap, handy-wipes, pet food, cooking utensils, grills and garbage. It is strongly suggested to keep your food in bear proof containers and away from your sleeping area. If possible, the containers should be hung about 10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from the tree. Your sleeping area should be a good distance away from your food storage and cooking area. Maintain a clean camp. When away from camp, secure food and garbage. Most human-bear conflicts happen when bears become habituated to human food sources.
When hiking, be sure to make noise and talk with companions so as not to surprise bear that may be in the area. You may consider putting bells on your backpacks to make noise that animals will hear. Bear will often choose to leave when they are not feeling threatened and have the opportunity to avoid conflict. Bear will feel threatened if they are protecting their cubs or food caches. Watch for signs of bear: tracks, scat, digging, broken branches of fruit shrubs and bear foods such as white-bark pine cone piles, berry patches and entrails. If you see a bear at a distance and there is no threat, back away slowly and leave the area. If a bear comes into camp, use bear spray if necessary… if you observe a bear in your camp, do not enter the camp until it has left. Carry bear spray and have it available for use.
Using and visiting the forest should be a fun and safe experience for everyone. Plan ahead with safety in mind and you and your companions will experience the benefits of the wonderful outdoors.
More information about bears in the Bighorns can be found on the forest service website.
Susan Guilford is the public affairs officer for the Bighorn National Forest.