Read an ExcerptDare to Survive DEATH, HEARTBREAK, AND TRIUMPH IN THE WILD
By RICK RINEHART AMY RINEHART
CITADEL PRESS BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Rick and Amy Rinehart
All right reserved.
Chapter One Theirs Is the Kingdom: Animal Attacks
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Of all the enduring symbols of the American West, perhaps none is greater than that of some large mammal-wapiti, moose, or grizzly bear-nobly cresting a ridgeline surrounded by unfettered wilderness. Romantic though this image may be, the fact is that the plains and mountains west of the Mississippi support a remarkable number of wild animals whose populations have been in flux since the first white human settlement appeared two hundred years ago. And they have lived in what can only be described as an uneasy compatibility among their hominid neighbors, keeping to themselves in protected habitat of one kind or another. Only when the boundaries of habitat and human civilization overlap or become otherwise obfuscated does the possibility for danger to both man and animal increase. Just as nothing good seldom happens in a bar after 1 a.m., something bad will inevitably happen to a careless photographer who gets between a grizzly bear sow and her cubs. And it has.
The Yellowstone ecosystem, the area that comprises Yellowstone and Grant Teton national parks and surrounding public lands, has been called the "Serengeti of North America" for all the large mammals that inhabit the area, but this shortchanges even vaster tracts of undeveloped land in the West that are home tohuge populations of ungulates, or hoofed mammals. Pronghorn in Wyoming, for example, probably outnumber the human population, which a recent census put at about 515,000 souls. Although the elk population in Yellowstone has fallen by half in recent years due to wolf predation and persistent drought, the overall western population is stable at about 750,000 animals. (Indeed, another national park, Rocky Mountain, has about twice the number of elk-3,000-that is considered sustainable. Officials are now considering allowing hunters into the park to "cull" the herds.) Though no reliable estimate is available, the population of mule, whitetail, and black tail deer in the West probably numbers over 10 million. All of these figures reflect a robust recovery from mid-twentieth-century populations decimated by hunting and habitat loss.
The animals that we perceive as dangerous for their ferocity-bears, lions, and canines-are also making a substantial comeback, to the point of making bold incursions into our streets and neighborhoods. The low end for black bear numbers in the West (excluding Alaska) is more than 100,000; for grizzlies the number is a comparatively low 1,200, but this is up substantially from when the bear was first listed as a "threatened" species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975. (Calling its recovery "remarkable" and "an amazing accomplishment," Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett announced on March 22, 2007, that the grizzly no longer needed protection of the Endangered Species Act.) Though mountain lions (also known as pumas, panthers, painters, deer tigers, catamounts, and just plain lions) once ranged the entire continent, today their stronghold is primarily the western United States and Canada, where they are in sufficient numbers to warrant being listed as a game animal in most states. Wolves also once roamed the entire United States and Canada, but were nearly exterminated in the western United States by the 1930s. Fortunately, attitudes toward this magnificent predator changed by the late twentieth century, and a successful reintroduction program brought the gray wolf back to northern Montana, Idaho, and Yellowstone National Park in the late 1990s. Still, wolf numbers in the American West are quite low, with some 650 animals found in the northern Rockies, and a southern variant, the Mexican Gray Wolf, numbering perhaps a hundred in Arizona and New Mexico. The wolf's wily cousin, the coyote, has proved far more adaptable to habitat change, and has even increased its range well beyond western borders; one was even captured in New York's Central Park in 2006. Because of its elusiveness, firm numbers are hard to come by and estimates of the coyote population for the entire United States can range from 1 million to 10 million animals.
But it has been the growing human population of the American West that has led to the increase in dangerous encounters with wild animals and not the other way around. As many threatened, endangered, or just plain diminished animal species have started to recover to their pre-settlement numbers (or so we think), the human population in sixteen western states averaged an aggregate growth rate of 8.8 percent from 2000 to 2006 alone, with Nevada at the high end (24.9 percent) and South Dakota at the low end (4.3 percent). Growth restriction ordinances in some cities have ironically contributed to the problem, pushing development onto land not already designated for open space or habitat preservation and inadvertently interfering with wildlife corridors. Indeed, identifying and in some cases creating wildlife corridors seems to have become the latest challenge to scientists as some large mammal populations have recovered. Still, a pedestrian greenway constructed in a riparian corridor only becomes a corridor for both wildlife and humans, leading to encounters that can be as innocuous as a bird-watching experience or as deadly as a cougar attack.
Naturally, an attack by a large wild animal is going to get more attention than a bee sting (which can be equally dangerous to some), but this reinforces our fascination with the wild and the beasts that constitute its romantic symbols. Though the mosquito is probably the deadliest animal on Earth by virtue of its capacity to spread disease, there's nothing like an elephant stampede or a tiger mauling (however rare) to give rise to "the wolf in the heart," as Theodore Roosevelt once proclaimed about the wild. An attack by a large mammal is still a frightening and occasionally tragic event, and the fact that they are happening with increasing frequency in the American West is cause for concern, if not quite yet a cause for alarm. Much can be done to avoid an attack, and a deeper understanding of a wild animal's natural history and behavior is the best place to start. Unfortunately, even this knowledge hasn't been enough to save some people from a fatal rendezvous with a man-eater.
Cute, Endearing, and Occasionally Deadly: The Black Bear
North America is home to approximately 750,000 black bears living in a variety of habitats, making it perhaps one of the continent's most adaptable large mammals. Sixteen subspecies can be found in such diverse locales as the Florida Everglades, New England, the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, northeastern Mexico, and of course the American West and Southwest. Black bears are not always black; in the Rocky Mountains nearly half may be brown or "cinnamon," and some may actually appear blond. (A rare white species, Ursus americanus kermodei, inhabits coastal British Columbia.)
Black bears differ from grizzly bears in many significant ways. At four to seven feet in length, black bears are smaller than grizzly bears (indeed, black bears are the smallest of all North American bear species); males can weigh from 125 to 500 pounds, females between 90 and 300 pounds. Black bears also reproduce more quickly than grizzly bears; sows can have up to six litters of two cubs during their lifetimes. Black bears climb trees; grizzlies do not. Though grizzly bears are omnivores, eating everything from fish, to elk, to insects, about 75 percent of the black bear's diet is vegetarian. In times of drought a black bear will range well beyond its home territory in search of food, often found in the lush landscaped backyards or trash bins of suburbanites. (In fact, human garbage is popular with both grizzly and black bears because it provides a quick way to add on calories prior to denning. Yellowstone officials regularly permitted bears to eat from the park's garbage dumps until the mid-1970s.) Black bears are opportunistic carnivores and, being generally too slow to catch small animals, will feed on fish, carrion, and newborn or small ungulates to enhance their largely vegetarian diet.
Expectedly, black bears tend to show aggression when competing for food or a mate, but tend to bluff more than actually attack. Observers of bear behavior suggest that a bear may make "threats" by first sniffing the air, followed by looking directly at the threatened individual, then charging or feinting a charge-and perhaps suddenly stopping to pound the ground and "huff" for effect-and then either stand, or simply walk or run away.
Though tolerance reflects the black bear's normal disposition toward human beings, the University of Calgary biologist Stephen Herrero, in his landmark study Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, reminds us that black bears can "bite through live trees thicker than a man's arm. They can kill a full-grown steer with a bite to the neck." Still, Herrero concludes, "Rarely ... do black bears use their power to injure or kill people ... most ... can become accustomed to people and their foods without endangering human lives." The numbers would appear to support this view. Herrero has cited twenty-three records of people killed by black bears in all of North America from 1900 to 1980. Another less verifiable source has put the number at fifty-two from 1900 to 2007, only three of which are said to have occurred in the American West.
Still, black bear encounters have become increasingly common in the early twenty-first century. The summer of 2006 produced an unusually high number of bear sightings and/or incidents, including one that interrupted a triathlon for one cyclist outside of Boulder, Colorado. As reported in the Denver Post:
Triathlete Sabrina Oei was speeding downhill at nearly 40 mph, cycling through the Colorado foothills during a race, when something brought her to a sudden, painful, stop: a bear.
The bear had wandered onto the race course and directly into Oei's path, the ensuing collision sending the cyclist airborne. After a painful landing on the pavement, Oei managed to pull herself together and finish the triathlon. By all accounts the bear seemed to have recovered as well and was last seen escaping back into the woods.
The Post also cited five other incidents that had already occurred that spring and summer. On July 2 in Lake Tahoe a bear had made himself comfortable in a parked convertible and gorged on pizza and beer in full view of a small crowd. On June 26 wildlife officials had to tranquilize a bear that had taken up residence in the backyard of a Santa Fe homeowner. Bear sightings were so common in a city park in Ashland, Oregon, that officials had to post warnings during the city's famous outdoor Shakespeare festival in May. Utah wildlife officers had to kill a bear that had attacked a Boy Scout a mere forty miles from Salt Lake City. And one bear even dared crossing Interstate 25 near Cheyenne on June 13. Although it posed no threat to humans, it probably posed a threat to itself in its meanderings; officials captured and later relocated it to the nearby mountains from where it had presumably come.
The increasing frequency of incidents was bound to produce a fatality, and one occurred on the night of June 27, 2007, when an eleven-year-old boy was dragged by a black bear from the tent he was sharing with his family in Utah's American Fork Canyon. His body was later discovered about four hundred yards from the tent. The attack tragically underscored Herrero's conclusion that predation was most likely the motive in the fatal incidents he had studied, and that half of the victims were children. The Utah incident followed more than a dozen black bear sightings in the region during the previous three weeks. State wildlife hunters, who had unsuccessfully tried to track the troublesome bear prior to the fatal mauling, used twenty-six search hounds and a helicopter to ultimately corner the bear in American Fork Canyon, where it was shot at 11:40 a.m. the following Monday. Prior to the Utah occurrence, the most recent fatality had taken place in Colorado on August 10, 1993, when a 240-pound black bear broke into a trailer and crushed the skull of twenty-four-year-old Colin McLelland.
Approximately five hundred black bear attacks have been reported in our state and national parks alone over the past ninety years or so, proving that the odds of surviving such an attack are actually quite high. And unlike the response to an attacking grizzly bear, the best way to avoid serious injury from a black bear might just be to fight back. As Stephen Herrero writes in Bear Attacks, "One need not be a prizefighter to deter a black bear." Black bears can be intimidated, even by just waving a stick or throwing a rock. (In the summer of 2007 an ex-Marine camping with his two sons in Georgia managed to kill an attacking bear by hitting it in the head with a log.) If a black bear is attacking to get at your food, however, the best course of action may be to give the food to the bear. And because black bears sometimes attack when feeling closed in on, merely giving it some space by backing off can deter an attack. (However, it is important to note that black bears, unlike grizzlies, are not likely to attack people in defense of cubs.) If the bear's motive is clearly predation, though-that is, it wants to kill you and eat you-Herrero suggests three possible outcomes: "The attack typically continues until the bear is forced to back down, or the person gets away, or the bear gets its prey. People who run away, unless they have somewhere to go, or people who act passively or play dead, are simply inviting the bear to continue the attack."
For all the talk and fear about what black bears can do to us, it's worth remembering that humans are the black bear's single biggest predator, both intentionally and unintentionally. Many states classify the black bear as a game animal, and the website for the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, states, "Very few bears outside of national parks die of natural causes. Nearly all adult bears die from human-related causes. Most are eventually shot. A few are killed by vehicles."
Chapter Two The American King of Beasts: The Grizzly Bear
No single accomplishment in the past fifty years has better symbolized the return of the American West to some of its pre-settlement wildness than the recovery of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park, and in parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. (There is speculation that remnant grizzlies inhabit the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, but the last verifiable sighting there was in 1979.) Though grizzlies once roamed the entire continental United States, incompatibility with human settlement quickly became apparent as the nation expanded, and the bear was hunted to near extinction for its depredations on domestic livestock, and yes, humans. (And lest there be any illusions about Native Americans living in harmony with the grizzly bear, one report from New York in 1814 quoted the Mohicans as having complained of a grizzly "very destructive to their nation, killing and devouring them." They ultimately killed the bear "after great difficulty.") Scientists estimate that the bear was eliminated from 98 percent of its original range in the lower forty-eight during a hundred-year period, surviving only in large and remote wilderness areas.
Unlike the black bear, a grizzly needs a lot of room to subsist successfully, which explains why sparsely populated Alaska has always been able to support a healthy population of grizzlies. Scientists have determined that grizzly populations in the northern Rockies in 1920 only survived to the present because they occupied areas larger than about 10,500 square miles. Individual bears may have ranges up to 1,250 square miles, depending on food availability. As Paul Schullery has pointed out in his classic overview of Yellowstone's bears, "It is important that bear needs are not confused with human ambition for territory." Logically, Schullery explains, bears with large ranges are having the hardest time finding nutritious food, animal or vegetable. Their meanderings also put them at the increasing risk of encountering enemies or stumbling into accidents. Bears with small ranges, however, have the best chance to survive because they're probably finding everything they need nearby.
Excerpted from Dare to Survive by RICK RINEHART AMY RINEHART Copyright © 2008by Rick and Amy Rinehart.Excerpted by permission.
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