Living with large carnivores
KEMMERER — People come from all over the world to witness the diverse wildlife Wyoming has to offer, but Wyoming has predators as well as herbivores, and predators can be a problem for people, cattle and pets (although it’s rare for people to be attacked).
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) has been holding a series of seminars across the state to educate people on how to live more harmoniously with large carnivores such as bears, mountain lions and wolves.
Dusty Lasseter has spent many years with WGFD studying large carnivores, especially bears. On Thursday, April 20, Lasseter spoke at a meeting in Kemmerer about the differences between black bears and grizzly bears.
With pictures, he pointed out the short round ears and a slight hump on the grizzly’s back and said black bears have larger and less rounded ears than a grizzly. He also showed photos of the claws, pointing out the black bear’s shorter, curved claws and the grizzly’s long pointed claws. Black bears will readily climb a tree and their claws make the task easy, but a grizzly’s are designed for digging although they can climb (with some difficulty).
“Of course, if you can see the claws you are too close to the bear,” Lasseter said, drawing laughs from the audience.
He said the grizzly’s back hump is made of muscle and fat for digging power.
Black bears prefer wooded areas where they spend a lot of time climbing trees, while grizzlies prefer more open areas. Grizzlies are also solitary but not territorial, so they will share areas with other grizzlies. And they are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk.
Usually, if a human has a problem with a grizzly, it is because the bear has cubs or someone has walked by one of its kills.
Grizzly bears must consume between 20,000-50,000 calories per day to prepare for hibernation, and they like pine nuts from white bark pine trees because they have a high caloric value. In fact, they have been known to steal the pine nuts from squirrels. They also like fish, moths and even carcasses they find.
“Bears are driven by their stomachs,” Lessiter said. “They depend on their sense of smell. We find we have more conflicts in dry years.”
Lessiter provided some advice for those camping in bear country.
“Clean the camp when you first arrive,” he said. “Many times, the previous camper has left the smell of bacon grease around or left some trash that can attract bears.”
He also counseled staying on the main tracks, being noisy, avoiding areas with seasonal food sources and looking for bear sign (scat, track, rolled rocks where bears have dug).
However, in case of a bear encounter, people should watch for bears’ stress indicators — huffing, moaning, teeth-popping, bluff charging, swaying the head and salivating. If the bear is stressed, Lessiter said the most important thing is to stay calm, avoid eye contact, back away slowly and speak in a soft monotone. People should also stand their ground if the bear charges because it is likely a bluff.
If the bear does not calm down, though, Lessiter suggested using bear spray or a gun, and dropping flat to the ground facedown with fingers interlocked behind the neck. Wearing a backpack may also serve as extra protection.
“Remember, don’t fight back,” Lessiter warned. “Spread your feet shoulder width apart to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over.”
Lessiter said bear spray (which does have an expiration date) creates a cloud with a 4-foot diameter that lasts seven seconds and is effective from 25-30 feet away. And for those traveling into grizzly territory, the weakest gun effective against grizzlies is a .44 magnum, or a .37 magnum for black bears.
“The best protection is preventive behavior,” Lessiter said. “Keep food stored properly, keep your camp clean, make noise and stay aware.”
He pointed out that most conflicts happen during hunting season.
“When people are hunting, they are doing everything wrong,” he said. “They are being quiet, they have gone through great efforts to hide their scent, they get off the main trails and then they are cleaning anything they killed. Hunters have to be much more aware.”
Lessiter suggested, along with others at the meeting, that tent campers can have added protection by adding a “hot wire” around their camp.
Mountain lions are another Wyoming predator.
Zach Turnbull, another warden with WGFD, has spent years studying mountain lions, wolves and other predators in Wyoming.
“Mountain lions go by many names — puma, cougar, and panther, to name a few — but no matter what they are called, they are all the same species,” said Turnbull. “A male can weigh 120-180 pounds, and a female can be 80-120 pounds. They are loners and can travel great distances each year in search of food and mates.”
“Mountain lions stalk a wide variety of prey,” he said. “Here in Wyoming, they mostly hunt deer. Around Jackson they will hunt elk. But they will also eat rabbits and other small game. They prefer rugged country with ample stalking cover. Their tracks will be 3.5-4.5 inches wide, and their claws rarely show in their track because they are retractable.”
Besides their scat and tracks, the cats also scratch out areas where they urinate as a communication marker.
When hiking around mountain lion country, keep your eyes open for these signs but also avoid what appear to be kill sites. Lions may drag a kill to a site and bury it or cache it in thick cover. “Pluck” or pieces of hair are signs of a kill site.
Turnbull said people who see mountain lions should assess their behavior. Their ear direction, stance or dispositions all give clues to their intention. If the cat looks menacing, people should demonstrate they are not prey.
“Make a lot of noise and try to make yourself look bigger,” Turnbull said. “Back away, but never run; it could provoke a predatory response. If you are attacked, never play dead. Use whatever weapon you have available. Bear spray will work on a lion. Make sure you do fight back.”
For those living in lion country, Turnbull suggests installing plenty of outdoor lighting, educating and keeping children close when going out and avoiding solo excursions. Yards should also have ample open areas.
“Remember, do not feed the wildlife,” Turnbull said. “Lions will follow them in, and then we face conflicts.”
Turnbull said it is rare to see a mountain lion and that lion hunters typically only see them when they use dogs to find and tree the cats.
Gray wolves are another predator. They can weigh 60-115 pounds and stand up to 32 inches.
Between 1995-1996, 35 gray wolves were introduced, and the population has grown to about 230-250 wolves as of 2016. Wolves, which are known to travel great distances, can now be found south of Pinedale.
Wolves typically run in packs but there are occasions where a wolf will run alone.
In 2008, Turnbull said WGFD tracked a collared female wolf that covered more than 3,000 miles in a year. She started out north of Yellowstone and went into Wyoming, then through parts of Idaho and Utah, going into the Uinta Mountains, then into Colorado and back across Wyoming then back into Montana.
“Wolves prey on many species,” said Turnbull. “Everything from mice to bison.”
Wolf protection is much the same as mountain lion protection, and bear spray will work on wolves. However, in wolf country, any dog except a highly trained and well-handled dog can be a liability.
Being aware and following the advice of Wyoming’s wildlife professionals can help to keep people safe among Wyoming’s large carnivores.