Wildlife Encounters in NorCal: How To Stay Safe

Like all wildlife, bears should be given a very wide berth.
Like all wildlife, bears should be given a very wide berth. California Department of Fish and Wildlife
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Before a few jackass hooligans trashed parts of San Francisco after the Giants won the World Series, the most head-shaking bit of recent news that came across the transom was a warning from wildlife officials in South Lake Tahoe.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, dozens of tourists have been watching bears feed on salmon at Taylor Creek Visitor Center in South Lake Tahoe—and snapping way-too-close shots of the action for their Instagram feeds.

In short, here’s what the statement conveyed: #bearselfies are dangerous and ridiculous. #enoughalready

Unless the problem stops, wildlife officials may close the popular bear viewing area. And while we know RootsRated readers wouldn’t dream of such idiocy, the story presents a timely reminder for a few tips on staying safe in the NorCal wilderness.

For some expert advice, we chatted with Andrew Hughan, spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Richard Pickens, a field technician with the Felidae Conservation Fund, a California-based non-profit dedicated to preserving wild cats and their habitats.

Bears

Between a mama bear and her cubs is not a place you want to be.
Between a mama bear and her cubs is not a place you want to be. North American Bear Center

In the 149 years that the CDFW has been keeping figures, there has never been a recorded bear fatality in the state, according to Hughan.

And despite the grizzly bear depicted on the state flag, the only type of bears in California are black bears, which “for the most part … are afraid of their own shadow,” Hughan says. “It’s a good thing they don’t realize they are at the top of the food chain, or else we would be in trouble.”

But the situations where hikers and campers can get into trouble usually falls into the following: if they get between a female and her cubs, if they don’t store their food properly, or if they startle a bear in the wilderness.

To that end, Hughan recommends that hikers and campers hang a piece of camping gear like a pot, pan or tin cup on the outside of their backpacks, where it will rattle and create enough noise to warn a bear; a whistle is another good idea. In addition, storing food in park-approved, bear-proof containers or, high in a tree away from your tent in the backcountry, are must-do’s.

In the unlikely event you encounter a bear and it does charge: Stand your ground, don’t make eye contact, and hold your head down, Hughan says, though he acknowledges “that’s easier said than done, but 99 times out of 100, it will be just a bluff charge.”

Mountain Lions

A cheeky take on what to do if you encounter a mountain lion offers some good tips, too.
A cheeky take on what to do if you encounter a mountain lion offers some good tips, too. Rob Marquardt

Though a mountain lion attack on a six-year-old child in Cupertino in September whipped up a local media frenzy, Pickens says that attacks on humans are extremely rare.However, the incident illustrates some important safety measures to keep in mind while hiking in areas where mountain lions are present. Pickens advises going with a group and keeping small children close, as mountain lions have been known to target them. In addition, if you come across one of the cats, make yourself as large and intimidating as possible—yell, throw rocks, open your jacket, and pick up small children or pets.

And, as is the case with most wildlife, never turn your back on the animal, Pickens says.

Deer

They may look docile, but deer, especially during their rut, can be dangerous.
They may look docile, but deer, especially during their rut, can be dangerous. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Though Hughan hasn’t heard of an injury involving a deer, he warns that it can happen, especially while males are in their rut—which happens during the fall—and become aggressive and unpredictable.

“They are looking for companionship, and if you scare them or get between them and a female, you can be charged,” he says. “Even though they are not big, it can still be pretty scary to see a couple of sharp antlers coming at you.”

Unlike with other wildlife, if a deer does charge, the best strategy is to get behind a tree or some other obstacle to prevent getting gored, Hughan says.

And, though it goes without saying, forget about trying to catch the incident on camera.

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