Animal Encounters: 5 Quick Tips

We hike. We bike. We ski. And we're thrilled when we get to experience wildlife. It's a real privilege to see a bald eagle soar through the sky, watch a black bear pick berries on the other side of the meadow or spy a moose munch soft willows on the riverbank.

Those encounters are great reminders of why we got out in the first place.

We've all heard of horror stories and seen people take unreasonable risk to get "just a little closer" to a bison in Yellowstone National Park or moose spotted on a popular loop hike. Jeff Obrecht of Wyoming Wildlife Magazine, however didn't want to spend much time on the negative aspects of wildlife encounters. He preferred, as did I, to give us a five great tips on how to enhance an experience.

Animal Encounters An American bison grazes in the shadow of the Teton Mountains. -Share Your Adventure Photo by Parke Ward.

Right now, bird activity is really interesting, Obrecht said, noting he spotted 50 turkey vultures on his walk to work Tuesday morning.They happen to be migrating, and for some reason, are drawn to cities. While the peak of the migration is over for many species of waterfowl, there's still a great opportunity to spot shore and wading birds, much less at your backyard bird feeder. (Note to self: Fill those feeders! Birds become dependent on them.)

"It's just a really, really great time of year for birds," Obrecht said. "Iconic to the West is the viewing of sage grouse, and there's etiquette involved in that because it is a sensitive species."

And that brought tip number one from Obrecht: Bring spotting scopes or binoculars on hikes and Sunday drives. You'll increase your chances of seeing something and if you notice a traffic jam, you'll have the best view because you came prepared.

Tip number two followed quickly: Get a bird identification book. That's handy to have so you don't have to identify birds you spotted based on your memory at home later. Keep an eye (and an ear!) out for birds.

Being aware of your surroundings is just sound advice in the outdoors - that can keep you from getting lost. Obrecht, however, took awareness a bit farther and talked about habitat.

While the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish hasn't had recent reports of mountain lion-human encounters, Vedauwoo Recreation Area (popular among climbers, hikers and mountain bikers who live and visit Southeast Wyoming) is a great example of their territory. It's rocky, mountainous and has dense undergrowth and cover. An encounter with a mountain lion wouldn't be fun, but can you imagine a more amazing animal to observe in the wild?

So, tip number three: Maintain an awareness of your surroundings. Not only will that keep you safer, it also, of course, means you're more likely to enjoy a siting. (Old scat? Fresh scat? Cat scat? You'll want to know!)

Hike with a dog long enough, and you'll undoubtedly have an encounter. This happened to me once at Vedauwoo Recreation Area, when my red heeler, Maszlo, spotted and locked on a moose near the parking lot. I was able to stay calm, but I really did wonder what Maszlo was going to do ... and how I'd respond! Luckily, he returned to me on my second confident command, and the moose wandered off. Still, since then, I've heeded a rule: Keep the dog leashed in the parking lot, unless I really want to see wildlife, and then I keep him leashed for the entire hike.

That tale triggered tip number four from Obrecht: Keep the dog on the leash.

"To put it in human terms, we're in the last trimester of big game gestation," he explained. "We don't want to add any stress that ungulates (hoofed animals) are having right now, and April is a stressful period particularly for deer and pronghorn as they switch from a forage to a grass diet."

Clearly, letting your dog run deer or getting too close to grazing animals will stress them and might earn you a fine if a game warden happens to be nearby.

In June, hikers and campers will see more lone buck pronghorns (male antelope) and does wandering around, perhaps through the city limits. (Or maybe we're right when we say this is what makes Wyoming different from the rest of the world.)

"The doe has said 'go on, seek your own fortune; I've got other young to attend,'" Obrecht explained. "In spring, sows (female bears) have kicked out their 2-year-old cubs. So in May, we're more likely to see ungulates wandering around looking lost."

Those animals aren't lost or lonely, so keep your distance and just watch. They're typically less curious about humans, so they're more likely to flee, Obrecht cautioned. Moose, however, are another story.

No matter the situation - adult moose or lone pronghorn - Obrecht offers up tip four.

"Stay calm. Make space," he said. "This is particularly true with moose. They have less fear of people, and they just don't see us as an overall threat."

And finally, tip number five: Don't feed the animals.

"There's no stronger memory for an animal than a food reward," Obrecht said. "Human-conditioned animals can become a different threat, so it's best to just watch them from a distance."

What about you? Have you had a wildlife encounter worth sharing? Share your experience in the comments below and then plan on joining us for our weekly Twitter chat, #STPLive. Thursday's topic is wildlife encounters, and the chat kicks off at 4 p.m. MDT.
posted by
Juliette Rule
Juliette Rule is a former social media and public relations manager for Sierra Trading Post. She loves riding her mountain bike or road bike - in every Colorado season. Juliette lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with her rescued Australian cattle dog, Maszlo.
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