Every time that some carnivorous critter bites or kills a human, there will be voices proclaiming, "They were here first. We live on their territory."
That is true in a long historical view — and it is also true that human populations have lived alongside big carnivores throughout history — but Wyoming writer Cat Urbigkit's new book, When Man Becomes Prey: Fatal Encounters with America's Most Feared Predators, adds some nuance and some new information.
Her book is divided into species-specific chapters
- Black bears
- Gray wolves
- Mountain lions
- Grizzly nightmares
- Greater Yellowstone grizzlies
Each chapter begins with some narratives, the kind that you want to read in the daytime with a clear view of your surroundings. They then cover relevant scientific research and practical ways to avoid conflict with bears, mountain lions, or whatever. "For some hikers [in coyote habitat] rocks-in-pockets becomes a routine at the start of every hike."
For instance, I was raised to believe that while they were a threat to dogs and cats, coyotes left adult-size humans alone. Urbigkit leads with the 2009 killing of Taylor Mitchell in Cape Breton Highlands National Park by a small pack of three coyotes — all healthy. "Wildlife officials suspected that these coyotes had become habituated to humans during the tourist season, and this may have involved the animals receiving food rewards from humans." (There have been other attacks on children and adults , but she was the only recorded adult human fatality.)
Attacks on pets, even leashed dogs with people, are also increasing. Geographically, coyote attacks seem most common in parks, where no hunting is allowed, and into urban areas, again without hunting and with a variety of food resources.
A certain degree of hunting, she suggests, does encourage predators to stay away from people. Yet with mountain lions, for instance, "wildlife managers believe that when heavy localized hunting results in the harvest of older mature males, more young mountain lions are likely to disperse into those areas, creating an increase in [lion-human] conflicts."
Some other take-aways:
• While people think that black bear sows with cubs are the most dangerous, "the majority of the fatal attacks on humans involved male bears, and most attacks took place during the daylight hours." While most black bears are shy, some do prey on humans deliberately. Also, "no one killed in a black bear attack carried bear spray."
• Urbigkit, who lives on a sheep ranch south of Grand Teton National Park, believes in bear spray: "You don't have to be an excellent shot to be effective with a can of bear spray — a cloud of spray between you and a charging bear should be enough for your immediate retreat from the area."
She also offers a case where bear spray stopped an attacking mountain lion. I myself have used it only on aggressive dogs, where it worked well, so I suspect that it would work just as well on a wolf or coyote.
• There are no documented cases of black bears attacking humans in defense of a carcass, but as Northern Rockies hunters are learning, grizzlies, where present have done that a number of times.
• The old idea, from books like Jim Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944), is that the predators who attack humans are usually elderly, crippled, or wounded. With grizzly bears, that is sometimes true, Urbigkit writes. But there also more North American predators than there used to be, thanks to recovery programs and more-regulated hunting. In addition, we have created such predator-friendly places as parks and food-rich subdivisions.
Consequently, they become habituated to us — and we become habituated to them, sometimes forgetting that they "are not loveable toys to be enjoyed when convenient [Yellowstone wolf tours?] and then discarded or destroyed when they reveal their true natures.
"Predators should be treated with a realistic acknowledgment that they are animals that kill prey to survive, and should be respected for the wild creatures that they are."
Any backcountry hiker or hunter, anyone who visits parks like Yellowstone or Great Smokies, and anyone who sees bears, coyotes, or deer in their neighborhoods — where there are deer, there are lions — ought to read When Man Becomes Prey.
It is available from the publisher, Lyons Press, or from the usual online source.