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cougar black bear warning

Wild animal attacks: How to protect your family

Cyclists attacked by cougar near Snoqualmie

Spring is just around the corner, and that means the wildlife in Washington is already becoming more active, as a group of five mountain bikers can attest this week. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) the cyclists were zooming along Tokul Creek trail last weekend when they were attacked by a cougar. The trail is about five miles north of the City of Snoqualmie. One cyclist was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

“We are thankful that the victim is stable after the incident this weekend,” said WDFW Lieutenant Erik Olson. “The people on scene took immediate action to render aid, and one of our officers was able to arrive within minutes to continue medical aid and coordinate transport. We may have had a very different outcome without their heroic efforts.”

Fish and Wildlife officers removed a young male 75-pound cougar on arrival at the scene.

While animal attacks remain rare in Washington, the incident is a reminder to be aware when hitting the trails and know what to do in the rare case that you or your child encounter a cougar, black bear, or other large animal while camping or hiking.  

Encountering a cougar — what to do

Last July, an 8-year-old child was attacked by a cougar in the Olympic National Park. The child and their family were camping when the attack occurred. According to the National Park Service, the child’s mother yelled and screamed at the animal, causing it to stop its attack. The child sustained minor injuries.

In a release about that attack, state wildlife officials stressed: “The entirety of Olympic National Park is considered cougar territory, and it is important for visitors to be prepared for an encounter.”

There are approximately 1,500 of the big cats in Washington State and they roam the woods in all seasons. Cougars are most active at dusk and dawn. But forest users should be cautious and aware that cougars roam and hunt at all hours of the day and night.

The National Parks Service recommended the following things to prevent interactions with cougars:

  • Never hike or jog alone.
  • Keep children within sight and close to adults.
  • Leave pets at home.
  • Be alert to your surroundings when hiking.
  • If you meet a cougar, do not run. Running could trigger the cougar’s attack instinct. Instead, group together, appear as large as possible, keep eyes on the animal, make lots of noise and shout loudly.
  • Throwing rocks or objects at the cougar is also recommended.

Illustration by Linda M. Feltner / Olympic National Park Cougar Brochure

Bears start roaming in spring

in 2023, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) received reports of several bear spottings, including one in the Newport neighborhood of Bellevue and Redmond last May and another in the Issaquah Highlands in July. WDFW is used the sitings as an opportunity to remind hikers and residents that “Black bears are common across much of Snohomish County and throughout Washington state.” Residents and hikers alike should take precautions to avoid encounters and learn what to do if in the improbable case that they meet a bear face-to-face. According to state wildlife biologists, there are approximately 20,000 black bears in Washington. WDFW receives about 500 black bear complaints yearly, ranging from glimpses of bears to actual encounters.

Why do we see more bears this time of year?

Bears usually avoid people, but even a small black bear has surprising strength and speed, which can make encounters potentially dangerous. Bears roam into cities and neighborhoods when the woodland food supply is scarce – usually in early spring and late fall as they prepare for hibernation. Conditions like late-arriving spring or drought may increase the likelihood of a residential bear sighting. The bear spotted in Milk Creek was digging through trash cans in a residential neighborhood.

How to avoid a bear encounter

WDFW recommends the following to help prevent unexpected meetings with black bears.

Don’t feed bears. According to the department’s primer on black bears,Often people leave food out for bears so they can take pictures of them or show them to visiting friends.” Bad idea. More than 90 percent of human-bear conflicts happen due to bears’ associating food with humans. A wild bear can become quickly conditioned to make that association even after just one handout. Unfortunately, that means many bears die from this association, either killed by property owners or wildlife managers.

Protect your garbage. The best way to keep bears out of your area is to keep trash away from them. The department recommends residents where bears are more likely to be spotted (for example, in East King County):

  • Put garbage out shortly before the truck arrives—not the night before. 
  • If you leave several days before pickup, haul your garbage to a dump.
  • Keep garbage cans with tight-fitting lids in a shed, garage, or fenced area. 
  • Spray garbage cans and dumpsters regularly with disinfectants to reduce odors. 
  • Pickup fallen fruit in your garden
  • Don’t leave dog or other animal food outside
  • Keep fish parts and meat waste in your freezer until they can be disposed of properly.
  • Consider investing in a commercially available bear-proof garbage container. 
  • Ask your local waste management company if bear-proof garbage containers are available or if individually purchased containers are acceptable and compatible with their equipment.

Keep in mind that bird feeders are an invitation to bears as well. Consider not using them but instead planting bird-friendly trees and shrubs. 

Protecting your family on trails or in the wilderness

Many families hit the trails during these warm weather months and well into fall in the Pacific Northwest. You can help prevent a bear encounter by taking these precautions:

  • Make noise in the woods. When camping or hiking, encourage your kids to make noise as they travel to avoid surprising a bear at close range. 
  • Never hike alone, keep small children near you at all times, and always make your presence known—simply talking will do the trick. 
  • Carry bear spray when you hike. Bear spray with a capsaicin (pepper) content between 1.3 and 2 percent can be an effective deterrent to an aggressive bear if sprayed directly into the bear’s face within 6 to 10 feet.
  • Teach your child what to do if they see a bear

First, it’s essential to know that black bear attacks on humans are rare. Less than two dozen people have been injured by bears in the last 50 years according to the WDFW. There has been only one fatal attack recorded in Washington: a 4-year-old girl was killed in Klickitat County in 1974.

Bears are cautious of humans, and they’d rather not tangle. But if you or a child do encounter a bear on the trail or in the backyard, WDFW recommends the following.  

  • Stop, remain calm, and assess the situation. If the bear seems unaware of you, move away quietly when it’s not looking in your direction. Continue to observe the animal as you retreat, watching for changes in its behavior.
  • Show them you are human. If a bear walks toward you, identify yourself as a human by standing up, waving your hands above your head, and talking to the bear in a low voice.
  • Don’t throw anything at the bear. A bear could interpret an item thrown as a threat or a challenge.
  • Clap, stomp, yell. If you cannot safely move away from the bear or the bear continues toward you, scare it away by clapping your hands, stomping your feet, yelling, and staring the animal in the eyes. 
  • Family shoulder-to-shoulder. If you are in a group, stand shoulder-to-shoulder and raise and wave your arms to appear intimidating. The more it persists, the more aggressive your response should be. If you have bear spray, use it.
  • Do not run from the bear. Bears can run up to 35 mph, and running may trigger an attack. Wave, yell.
  • Don’t climb trees. Climbing a tree is generally not recommended as an escape from an aggressive black bear, as black bears are adept climbers and may follow you up a tree.

If a bear attacks, attempting to make contact, the WFWD advises, “fight back aggressively using your hands, feet, legs, and any object you can reach. Aim for the eyes or spray bear spray into the bear’s face.”

Washington Fish & Wildlife Department offers this video on what do in case of bear sightings

WDFW hopes you’ll watch this video with your kids so they can learn to prevent bear encounters.

Want more information on bears and how to stay safe? Check out the Get Bear Smart website.

More at Seattle’s Child:

7 hikes that are easy and kid-friendly

Short Seattle-Area Hikes that are good for kids

Here’s how to beat the heat!

Trail closures: Franklin Falls, Denny Creek closed for summer

 

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.