ZION NATIONAL PARK – Considered the most dangerous of Zion National Park’s inhabitants, bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes are rarely seen. But a series of encounters in recent months has defied that pattern, putting park staff and visitors on alert.
Park rangers discovered fresh black bear tracks near the West Rim trailhead at Lava Point in early July. Though no bears were spotted, the park released an advisory online and via social media outlets informing visitors to be aware of and report all encounters.
On July 13, a canyoneering group encountered a mountain lion feeding on a kill in Spry Canyon after dark. The cougar protected the carcass (believed to be a deer or bighorn sheep) by hissing at the party, who promptly retreated from the area and reported the encounter to rangers.
In mid-spring, a hiker stepped off a popular trail and tripped over a log under which a Great Basin rattlesnake was resting. The hiker was bit in the leg and required hospitalization, though the injuries were not life-threatening.
Though Lava Point and Spry Canyon are not located in the highly trafficked tourism area of the park, they are far more frequently visited by people than wildlife; such encounters rarely occur, especially within a short period of time.
“These sightings are highly unusual,” said Fred Armstrong, division chief of natural and cultural resources and research activity for Zion National Park. “We’re not sure what the reason behind them is, but we don’t think anything is wrong and they’re not causing any nuisances at this time.”
Human-wildlife encounters sometimes result in the involved animal being classified as a nuisance, which must be killed. Bears are very likely to become nuisance animals, as they are easily attracted to food at cabins, campsites and other recreational spots, threatening the safety of anyone in these areas. In the summer of 2012, residents of cabins near Kolob Reservoir had recurring issues with bears looting trash receptacles for food.
The circumstances warranting a nuisance classification vary depending on each situation and the discretion of park officials, but once an animal begins to associate people or populated areas with food, they are causing a serious problem. In an effort to curb this issue, it is a violation of federal law to feed any wild animal within a national park or on any other federally protected land.
Following the mountain lion sighting, park officials closed Spry Canyon for approximately two weeks (it was reopened after rangers inspected the area and did not find the dead animal). The kill was located along the canyoneering route, posing not only a threat to visitor safety but causing concern for the natural hunting process and health of the mountain lion, Armstrong said. The goal of the closure was to avoid a nuisance.
“A mere sighting of a bear or mountain lion, especially on public lands in the animal’s natural habitat, does not warrant the animal being classified as a nuisance animal,” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Biologist Martin Schijf said. In fact, it is very rare for these animals to become nuisance animals, and if people are cautious, we can reduce the risk of nuisance encounters.”
Classifying an animal as a nuisance and killing them is a last resort that wildlife officials try to avoid.
“These species are part of the fundamental resources protected by the park,” said Aly Baltrus, Zion National Park chief of interpretation and visitor services.
Situated on the boundary of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert, Zion’s 148,000 acres of unique land encompass over 5,000 feet of elevation change and numerous geographic zones, providing a vast array of climates and habitats. An estimated 900 species of plants, 291 species of birds, 78 species of mammals, 44 species of reptiles and amphibians and eight species of fish live within the park, some of which are endangered or indigenous.
Most animals prefer the solitude of wilderness and avoid park visitors, though encounters do happen. A bear, mountain lion or rattlesnake will only pose a threat to people if they are surprised and feel the need to protect themselves, their young or their habitat, are guarding their kill or are provoked by careless actions.
In fact, no incident involving a bear or mountain lion that resulted in the injury or death of a person or animal has been reported in Zion in the last 10 years. A fair amount of visitors have been bitten by rattlesnakes, but no fatalities have occurred. Most animals are more threatened by human presence than any potential danger they pose to people, Armstrong said.
“An encounter with an animal that has any ill intent towards humans is extremely rare,” Schijf said.
Rules for interacting safely with wildlife
Though accidents happen, visitors can take many preventative actions to ensure a safe trip through the park. The Utah DWR and Wild Aware Utah offer the following wilderness safety tips:
- When possible, don’t travel in a wilderness area alone – these include including national and state parks, recreation areas and designated trails with people nearby.
- Take a first aid kit and cell phone.
- Keep children close and pets on leashes, as they are most likely to be attacked by a wild animal.
- Make noise on the ground with a hiking staff when going through areas where vegetation obscures the trail.
- Never approach a wild animal.
- Never try to feed a wild animal.
- If you are approached by a wild animal, stay calm and back away slowly. Do not run or turn your back to it.
- Always expect the unexpected.
- Check the park’s wildlife advisories, area closures and talk to a ranger before your trip.
- Report all mountain lion and bear sightings to Zion National Park at 435-772-3256.
- Mountain lions are most active around dawn and dusk. If you are hiking at these times, be especially vigilant.
- Steer clear of dead animals. Mountain lions guard their kills aggressively.
- Read a mountain lion’s body language. If it is crouching, snarling or begins stalking, an attack may be imminent.
- Pick up children or pets and put them on your shoulders. In doing so, crouch as little as possible in order to not appear submissive.
- Try to appear threatening and scare off the mountain lion. Stay standing, wave your arms slowly over your head and open your jacket or shirt to appear as large as possible. Yell, clap your hands or bang on objects.
- Make direct eye contact and back up slowly, yelling as loudly as possible.
- Never run.
- In the unlikely event of an actual attack, use whatever you can – fists, rocks, sticks, a backpack – to fend off the mountain lion. Try to remain standing and get up if you’re knocked down.
- Seek immediate medical attention for any injuries.
- Campers are most likely to encounter bears, as they are attracted to food stored at campsites. Special safety tips for campers can be found here.
- If you are hiking in bear country, it’s best to leave your dog at home.
- Take pepper spray, as it is highly effective against bears in the event of an attack.
- Stay on marked trails at all times and obey the regulations of the area you’re in.
- Keep an eye out for tracks, scat, digs and trees that bears have rubbed.
- Keep in mind that bears tend to be more active near dawn and dusk.
- If you spot a bear but the bear doesn’t see you, move away quickly and quietly.
- If you encounter a bear, stay calm and avoid any sudden movements.
- A standing bear is not necessarily a sign of aggression.
- Bears will often charge towards you as a bluff. Stand your ground until the bear stops, then slowly back away.
- Never run from a bear. They can run faster than 30 miles per hour and are adept at climbing trees.
- If a bear starts to attack you, throw something on the ground to distract it. Be certain the bear’s focus has shifted off you before you try to escape.
- Try to scare the bear off. Yell and wave your arms.
- Fight back using any weapon available.
- Seek immediate medical attention for any injuries.
- Wear long pants and boots.
- Be smart about where you’re sticking your hand or foot. Don’t reach into holes or under rocks, bushes or logs.
- Read a rattlesnake’s body language. Lying coiled with its rattle parallel to the ground is normal position. If a snake has its rattle up and head and upper body raised, it is preparing to strike.
- If a rattlesnake is preparing to strike, back away slowly.
- Even if a rattlesnake isn‘t “rattling,” it may still strike.
- If you are bit, don’t cut the wound or attempt to squeeze or suck out the venom. This is a popular myth that is not effective.
- Keep the bite area below chest level.
- Follow first aid basics and be vigilant of the symptoms of shock.
- Even if you feel “fine” after being bit, get to a hospital immediately for an anti-venom treatment.
“Remember that the park is not a petting zoo and that humans are intruders into the wildlife’s habitat,” Armstrong said. “Help keep the ‘wild’ in ‘wildlife’ by observing them from an appropriate distance.”
“A national park is managed to be a natural and wild area. It is important for people to realize that when we are in these areas, we are visitors encroaching into wildlife habitat, and people should constantly be aware of their surroundings,” Schijf said. “This can make all the difference in having a safe and enjoyable experience.”
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