ViewFinder investigates the conflicts between people and wild animals in Northern California. The battle for space between people and wild animals is increasingly one-sided, as our population grows. But a few creatures are successfully challenging and exploiting us in our own realm. How some people deal with these animals and what we learn from them, to the advantage of both people and wildlife, is the focus.
Producer Doug Bertran has worked from Alaska to Panama making documentaries on the environment and wildlife. Over the years Doug has seen wild areas shrink in size as the land used by people increases. Many of the species filmed have been endangered species, animals that have very little habitat left. Now in a new documentary for KVIE’s series “ViewFinder,” Doug Bertran profiles mountain lions, coyotes, and black bears.
While these species are relatively common, many are needlessly killed each year by people. How some people deal with these animals and what we learn from them, to the advantage of both people and wildlife, is the focus. By making this film Doug hopes he can help potentially lethal encounters between people and wildlife be reduced.
With both an increase in our human population and more people moving to formerly “wild” areas, encounters with California’s large mammals are increasing. Hundreds of Mountain lions, coyotes, and bears are killed each year as “problem” animals. While relatively few people are hurt in these encounters, learning the ways of these wildlife and modifying our own behavior will save not only human lives but the lives of these species.
Late summer in California means the woods are full of hungry black bears that will eat just about anything, much to the frustration of people living or camping in bear habitat. Conflicts between people and bears have escalated in recent weeks, prompting renewed warnings to people who plan to venture into bear habitat.
“There has been, and continues to be, a pattern of careless food storage that leads to public safety incidents. There will be more problem bears unless campers and homeowners start taking some responsibility,” said Assistant Chief Mike McBride, California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).
“Once people have an understanding of a bear’s indiscriminate taste for anything that smells, they’re a lot more careful in bear habitat,” says Doug Updike, DFG senior wildlife biologist and statewide black bear program coordinator.
Updike and other DFG biologists who study black bears tell amazing stories about things bears have eaten. One biologist performing a necropsy on a dead bear found a whole, intact cantaloupe in the animal’s stomach. Another bear’s stomach held an entire yellow jacket’s nest. “I’ve seen leather work gloves, sections of garden hose, plastic bags, even a kitchen sponge in piles of bear scat,” said Updike. “This is not what nature intended for bears to eat.”
Conflicts between people and bears are expected to continue as bears prepare for hibernation, according to Updike. While Californians are taking advantage of the mild climate, bears are trying to fatten up on high calorie foods that will sustain them through the winter.
“The lesson for humans is that if you can think like a hungry bear, you’ll do a better job of avoiding one,” Updike said.
The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) logs hundreds of Wildlife Incident Reports annually related to mountain lion sightings. On average, fewer than three percent of these reports result in a mountain lion being identified as an imminent threat to public safety and killed under the DFG’s Wildlife Public Safety Guidelines.
The vast majority of these reports (79 percent) are resolved by providing information about the natural history and behavior of mountain lions. Another 18 percent of cases are legitimate threats posed by mountain lions that can be resolved by modifying human behavior. (Percentages are based on analysis of five years’ worth of data.) Below is a breakdown of the mountain lions killed for public safety reasons from 2001 through 2004.
If You Encounter A Mountain Lion
The following suggestions are based on studies of mountain lion behavior and analysis of attacks by mountain lions, tigers and leopards:
Do Not Hike Alone: Go in groups, with adults supervising children.
Keep Children Close To You: Observations of captured wild mountain lions reveal that the animals seem especially drawn to children. Keep children within your sight at all times.
Do Not Approach a Lion: Most mountain lions will try to avoid a confrontation. Give them a way to escape.
Do Not Run From a Lion: Running may stimulate a mountain lion’s instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal. Make eye contact. If you have small children with you, pick them up if possible so they don’t panic and run. Although it may be awkward, pick them up without bending over or turning away from the mountain lion.
Do Not Crouch Down or Bend Over: In Nepal, a researcher studying tigers and leopards watched the big cats kill cattle and domestic water buffalo while ignoring humans standing nearby. He surmised that a human standing up is just not the right shape for a cat’s prey. On the other hand, a person squatting or bending over looks a lot like a fourlegged prey animal. If you’re in mountain lion country, avoid squatting, crouching or bending over, even when picking up children.
Do All You Can To Appear Larger: Raise your arms. Open your jacket if you are wearing one. Again, pick up small children. Throw stones, branches, or whatever you can reach without crouching or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly in a loud voice. The idea is to convince the mountain lion that you are not prey and that you may be a danger to it.
Fight Back If Attacked: A hiker in Southern California used a rock to fend off a mountain lion that was attacking his son. Others have fought back successfully with sticks, caps, jackets, garden tools and their bare hands. Since a mountain lion usually tries to bite the head or neck, try to remain standing and face the attacking animal.
Immediately Report All Encounters or Attacks: If you are involved in a face-to-face encounter with, or an attack by, a mountain lion, contact the California Department of Fish and Game 24 hour dispatch center at (916) 445-0045. The threat to public safety will be assessed and any appropriate action will be taken. Also report any sightings of dead or injured mountain lions.
The chances of encountering a coyote increases in spring as coyotes nurture newborn pups and people enjoy warmer weather, cautions the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). Coyotes bear litters during April and May, with females delivering between three and nine pups. Adult coyotes caring for young will need to forage more. This can lead to increased aggressiveness, said DFG wardens, who have seen an upswing in reported coyote encounters in southern California and the inland desert areas.
The coyote (Canis latrans) is extremely adaptable and resourceful, and can survive on whatever food is available. They prey on rabbits, mice, birds and other small animals, as well as young deer and sheep. In urban areas, coyotes have attacked people's small pets - cats and dogs included - and have attacked small children as well. According to a recent scientific paper presented at a wildlife and natural resource conference, there have been 89 coyote attacks on humans in California between the late 1970s and December 2003.* Approximately 79 percent of the attacks have occurred in the last decade, indicating that the problem is increasing, the report stated.
"Of the attacks on children and adults… 63 percent occurred during the season when adult coyotes would most likely be provisioning pups or experiencing increased food demands because of the female's gestation (March through August), while 37 percent of attacks occurred during the other six months of the year (September through February)," the report stated. "Alternatively, this seasonality in attacks could be related to other behaviors associated with territoriality, reproduction, and defense of den sites and/or pups."
DFG Senior Wildlife Biologist Doug Updike said that coyotes are adaptable predators, found in most open habitats. They are tolerant of human activities, and adapt and adjust rapidly to changes in their environment. As coyote pups grow older and there becomes more competition for its source of food, it is likely a coyote's natural aversion to people will change. The biggest problems occur when people feed coyotes - either deliberately or inadvertently.
Never feed a coyote - Deliberately feeding coyotes puts pets and other residents in the neighborhood at risk. In addition, people can inadvertently feed coyotes by leaving pet food or garbage where they can get it. Feed pets ndoors or promptly remove outdoor dishes, bring bird feeders in at night, store bags of pet food indoors, and use trashcans with lids that clamp shut.
Clear brush and dense weeds from around dwellings - Reduce protective cover for coyotes and make the area less attractive to rodents. Coyotes, as well as other predators, are attracted to areas where rodents are concentrated, such as woodpiles and seed storage areas.
Protect children - Although rare, coyotes have been known to seriously injure young children. Never leave children unattended in areas known to be frequented by coyotes, even in familiar surroundings, such as a backyard.
Protect pets and livestock - Keep small pets such as cats, rabbits, and small dogs indoors, especially at night. They are easy, favored prey. Coyotes have been known to be responsible for a large number of cat disappearances in a single residential neighborhood.
Use negative reinforcement - If coyotes are present, make sure they know they're not welcome. Make loud noises, throw rocks, or spray them with a garden hose. To keep coyotes wild or to prevent a coyote from becoming habituated to humans, it is important that coyotes retain their natural wariness of humans.
Most coyote sightings should be reported to local animal control districts. However, if a coyote acts aggressively or attacks people, call the emergency number 911, or contact the nearest DFG office. For more information on coyote prevention tips, go online at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/coned/keepmewild/whattodocoyote.htm.