Camping Safety: Wild Animals and What to Do in an Encounter (Part 3)

Who would have thought that the seemingly calm and indifferent wild bison can actually be “more dangerous” than bears or mountain lions? Can you believe that they actually attack and injure more people than these top predators at Yellowstone? That’s why we shouldn’t be too complacent and always follow hiking and camping safety practices. Even the gentle, grass-loving deer can attack if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Camping Safety: Wild Animals and What to Do in an Encounter Part 3

Bison

Location

Wild American bison, sometimes also called buffalos, can be found in America’s Great Plains. The largest concentration is in Yellowstone National Park, where they have lived for a long, long time. In 2016, the bison was unanimously voted as the US’s national mammal.

Description

Largest on land in North America

Polar bears may be the largest carnivores but the crown for largest land animals in the continent go to bison. Full-grown cows weigh up to around 455 kg (1000 lbs) while mature bulls can weigh more than double that at more than 900 kg (2000 lbs). They can also grow to 2m (6.5 ft) tall and 3.8m (12.5 ft) long. 

Despite their huge proportions, bison are fast and agile. They can run at 65 kp/h (40 mph), jump 1.8m (6 ft), and turn around whip-fast if they sense a threat from behind.

My humps, my humps

Similar to grizzlies, bison have a hump of pure muscle in their back to help them dig. This time, the hump supports the bison’s head and allows them to plow through heavy snow to forage even in winter. 

The most dangerous animal in the wild

Bears sure are terrifying but you should really be more worried about bison. Bison have charged humans more than any other animal in Yellowstone, for example. These shaggy behemoths pose more danger than bears and mountain lions because they appear so gentle and calm but are actually unpredictable and very protective of their young. Also, bear and lion sightings are less common while bison are usually out grazing in the open. Best advice you’ll ever hear: don’t get too close.

Tell-tail

To get a read on a bison, observe the tail. A bison with its tail sticking up is an aggressive, bison ready to attack. Shaking their head, pawing, and loud snorting are also signs that the one-ton animal is pissed or about to charge.

A tail that’s pointed towards the ground usually means a relaxed, unconcerned bison. That said, don’t get too complacent. These animals are unpredictable and dangerous. You never know when the situation might turn around. Always keep your distance. 

Hiking and Camping Safety

Staying safe and avoiding a bison attack is actually not very hard. It’s been said again and again but just to be clear one more time: keep your distance, that’s it. The majority of bison attacks happen because the person came too close for the bison’s liking. 

-The problem is that people aren’t as scared of bison as they are of bears or wolves. Bison aren’t interested in eating humans or any meat, after all. So some people get complacent and despite all warnings not to, they get too close to an animal that weighs as much as a ton. Then they’re surprised that they get gored. 

-Bison are individualistic. While some can be chill around people who get too close, many aren’t. Steer clear even if the bison looks calm and indifferent.

-It’s another matter if you accidentally get too close. When hiking, stay aware, and alert. Don’t put headphones on or keep the volume way down so you can hear your surroundings.

Beware of blind corners. Walk slowly and with caution. Make noise so any animal nearby, including bison, becomes aware of your presence.

If you have a pet with you, keep them on a leash so they don’t startle or provoke bison that may be nearby.

Don’t walk between bison, especially between a mom and her calf. Stay at least 23m (25 yds) away, 90m (100 yds) or more is even better.

Don’t approach, don’t feed one, and certainly never try to touch one.

May and June are months when the cows give birth and they will be hyper-protective and defensive. The mating season is in July and August when bulls are extra agitated and aggressive.

What to do if you encounter a bison

If a bison charges, there’s little you can do to stop that gigantic animal so be sure to stay out of their way in the first place. There are also no so-called bison deterrents and an angry bison won’t be scared off by making noise and looking big like bears and wolves sometimes can be.

-If you see a bison from far away, stay far away. Keep a minimum of 23m (25 yds) between you and the animal. 

-If you unexpectedly meet one at close proximity, slowly and quietly back away. Don’t make any sudden movements. If they look you in the eye, that’s a signal that you are far too close.

-If a bison is also on the trail you’re taking and is walking in your direction, retreat, or move away from the trail. 

-A bison that’s ready to attack may: snort, shake its head from side to side, paw the ground, make bluff charges, and raise its tail. However, they can attack without displaying these signs.

-Your best chance of escaping an attack is to run fast and find a hiding place. If you can’t find a hiding place and it keeps charging, continue moving while keeping something large between you and the bison at all times. 

Climb a tree. They can jump tall fences but bison obviously can’t climb. If you’re up far enough, it can’t reach you. It’s also unlikely to stake you out as they’re not hungry, just feeling angry and threatened.

-You can’t outrun a bison in open grounds, though. If you have bear spray, might as well use it once the bison gets close enough. There have been accounts of bear spray working on bison and it’s definitely better than nothing.

Deer

Location

There are three deer species that live in North America. They are the white-tailed deer that can be found in most of the continent, mule deer found in western North America, and black-tailed deer found on the Pacific coast.

Description

Deer names

Male deer are called bucks but the big ones are sometimes called stags. Female deer are called does, while baby deer are fawns.

Antlers, antlers

Antlers are extremely interesting. For one, they are the male deer’s version of breeding plumage to attract females during the mating season. They use them to fight each other too. 

And they can get crazy about it. Bucks have been found dead together, with antlers locked and entangled. In one instance, a buck has been found with a dead buck’s head and antlers entangled on its own. Yikes. The buck is thought to have charged an already dead deer and severed its head. Double yikes.

For two, antlers grow really, really fast. In fact, they are the fastest-growing living tissue on earth, ever. They are covered with fuzzy velvet, full of blood vessels to promote rapid growth. Antlers are replaced every year and usually grow towards fall, then drop in early spring. 

All deer species have antlers except for the Chinese water deer that have long canines instead. Their teeth can grow to 8 cm (inches).

Not an easy prey at all

Since deer are prey animals, it’s no surprise that they are equipped with a number of attributes that allow them to evade predators.

-Deer eyes are located on either side of their head which gives them a 310-degree vision. It also allows them to see better at night. In comparison, humans only have 180-degree, and we’re no match for seeing at night.

-Deer have good smelling ability. They can smell predators from far, far away. They also lick their noses to keep it moist and keep their senses at optimum.

-They also have wonderful hearing. Deer have special ear muscles that allow them to make their ears face different directions to hear better, without having to move their head. 

-They are fantastic swimmers and fast runners. A frightened deer can sustain speeds of up to 48 km/h (30 mph).

-Their long, robust legs allow them to jump up to 3m (10ft) high and leap up to 9m (30 ft) across.

-Baby deer or fawn do not have a scent. All the better to hide from predators.

Hiking and Camping Safety

-Deer are quite skittish so they will usually avoid or run away from you. That said, the rule of the wild still applies, never get between a mother and her child.

-Male deer are mostly only aggressive during mating season. They can be extremely dangerous during this time. It’s a good thing that it only lasts for a few weeks. Know when the mating season is and stay far away from male deer during that time. It may also help to carry some type of deterrent. You’ll know they’re male from a long way away because of the massive antlers, of course.

-Steer clear of plants that deer eat and don’t stop too long at places where deer are. Sometimes, it’s not actually the deer themselves that are dangerous but what’s after the deer. Coyote, bobcats, wolves, and mountain lions are some of the larger predators that like to hunt deer. 

-Most parks don’t allow hunting but some do. It’s important to find out if hunting is allowed in the area, when the hunting seasons are, and what time of day are hunters the most active. It’s even better to skip the hunting season altogether.

What to do if you encounter a deer

-Don’t approach, touch, or feed deer. Unless it’s mating season, the deer is rabid, or it has a fawn to protect, it’s not going to just attack if you stay away.

-If you accidentally come face-to-face with one, it will most likely run away. Otherwise, retreat quietly and slowly create some distance between you. An agitated deer will usually stomp its feet and huff.

-If the deer does charge, make yourself look bigger and make loud noises. If this doesn’t deter the deer, getaway, and put some obstacle between you. Climbing a tree works very well too. 

-If it’s on you, curl in a fetal position and protect your head, face, neck, and stomach. It will probably lose interest eventually when it realizes that you’re not a threat. 

-If the dear doesn’t let up, get a hold of the antlers or hooves if you can, and wrestle it to the ground.

Elk Location

Elk can primarily be found in the mountains, meadows, and forests of the western United States.

Description

Deer but bigger

Elk and deer belong to the same deer family, the Cervidae. Native Americans gave them the name wapiti, which means ‘light-colored deer’. That said, elk can be light or dark brown, tan, and anything in between. Elk are also bigger than their cousins, standing up to 1.5 m (5 ft) tall from hoof to shoulder, and weighing up to 500 kg (1,100 lbs). Their antlers add another 1.2m (4 ft), giving them a total of 2.8m (9 ft) in height.

Elk are also said to be meaner than deer. They can look extremely alike, especially a small elk, so be careful. Many have thought to approach a cute and docile deer only to be faced by an irritated and aggressive elk.

They roar..and whistle

When in a rut, bull elks produce a sound that echoes through the mountain. This is called ‘bugling’. Elk bugle is both fascinating and otherworldly (kinda eerie and terrifying the first time too, if we’re being honest here). Its pitch is far higher than any sound an elk’s voicebox can possibly produce. Scientists couldn’t figure out how they do it at first, until they (the scientists) began closely observing elk. They found that bugling is a combination of roaring and whistling that bull elk produce using their mouth and nose simultaneously. Here, have a listen:

Elk can count?

Or so it seems. Observations suggest that cow elk can “count” antler points, or that bulls with ten have some kind of attraction in another way that’s different and stronger than those with lesser antler points. When female elk have a choice between a bull with ten and nine, she will almost always choose the male with ten antler points.

Hiking and Camping Safety

There are two times each year when you have to be especially careful around elk:

-In the springtime (May-June), when cows are extra protective of newborn calves. This is the calving season. Never go between a cow elk and its calf. They give birth to usually just one. Know that cows would hide their calf behind something big. There have been incidences when unsuspecting victims have been attacked even before or without even seeing the calf. 

When you’re on the trail, be cautious around bends, blind corners, or when approaching boulders, trees, vegetation, and any big structures where a calf can be hidden. Elk can also hide their calves behind cars so stay watchful when going back to your own car. 

-In the fall mating season (August-September), when bull elk rut. They battle for the cow’s attention with a show of strength. Don’t stand between the males and females. Bull elk will be especially aggressive during this time because of the excess of testosterone in the air. It will come at you if you get in the way or get too close. We all know how that will likely end. 

Elk bull will even charge a car if they think it’s too near so it pays to not be too complacent even when in a vehicle. It’s advisable to stay at least 23 m (25 yd) away from elks. Even at other times of the year, that’s still good advice.

-Another word of warning, don’t try to imitate the elk bugle. You may irritate the bull, make them feel threatened, or mistakenly take the sound as a challenge.

What to do if you encounter an elk 

-When observing elk, don’t get closer just to take better pictures. Give them their space. 

-You are too close if the elk suddenly looks at you or changes its behavior in some way. Back away and stay away, at no less than 23 m (25 yd). Some parks even advise 30 meters (100 ft).

-If you accidentally run into elk on the trail, especially a bull in a rut or a cow with a calf, back away slowly but get out of there as quickly as you can. If you see where the calf is, try and go the direction opposite. 

-A usual sign before the actual attack is pricking of ears or grinding of teeth. Be ready to use any deterrent you have on you. Remember, the intent is to dissuade the animal, not to harm. 

-If the elk starts to charge, use your deterrent. If you have none, run. Pro tip: it’s not easy for elk to charge and pivot at the same time. 

-Put some type of solid barrier between you and the animal. While it’s true that elk can reach speeds of up to 65 kp/h (40 mph), they’re less likely to chase you too far. Unlike predators such as bears or wolves, they want you to stay away, not eat you. Bull elk may see your running as a sign of weakness and stop pursuit, while cow elk will be reluctant to leave their calf if you’re far enough away.

-Climb a tree where it can’t reach you, if possible. Do not try to fight back empty-handed, nor play dead.

-If there’s nowhere to run or you’re too close for that avenue, don’t panic. Yell, try to look bigger, and wave your arms aggressively, preferably with a jacket or towel. 

-If you’re out of options and the elk starts kicking and stomping on you, curl into a ball to protect your head and vital organs. Don’t get up immediately once the elk stops, lest it takes this as you asking for another round.

Bears, mountain lions, gators, and even bison are scary, aren’t they? Scary beautiful. But that shouldn’t stop anybody from exploring and experiencing the beauty of nature. As long as you respect wildlife and take the proper precautions, you won’t be in any danger. 

Missed Part 1 of our Camping Safety series? Head over here.

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

Happy camping!

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