4 Lessons I’ve Learned Living Alongside Large Predators
Sharing a habitat with bears, wolves, lions, and other big wild animals can be complicated, and not always safe or predictable. Here’s what I know.
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“Holy smokes, that’s a good one!”, our closest neighbor, Montana State Representative Tyson Runningwolf, responded when I sent him the photo above of a mountain lion climbing off of the back porch of our family cabin.
I met Runningwolf a few years ago in the woods above that cabin, just outside Glacier National Park. He hunts predators in the area, and had mistaken the tracks my three big dogs left as sign that the wolf pack had come down off the mountain. Initially disappointed we weren’t fresh quarry, he cheered up when I showed him a freshly killed doe I’d just found a couple hundred yards away buried under some brush. As we talked, he corrected my assumption that the deer had been taken by a grizzly bear, and explained it was almost certainly hunted by a big male mountain lion.
Encountering predators like lions, bears, and wolves is my favorite thing about living in Montana. And learning to live alongside them in their habitat, in a way that keeps both my family and the wildlife safe, has been a fascinating journey that’s forced me to reconsider some of my previously held beliefs. Here’s what I’ve learned, so far:
1. Wildlife and Human Interaction Is Complicated
There are no easy, or convenient answers when it comes to sharing space with wild animals. Like most people visiting grizzly country, I’d been informed that bear spray outperforms firearms when it comes to bear encounters. Tourists are advised to carry spray when they visit Yellowstone or Glacier, or when they go camping or hiking in other grizzly habitats. But five years ago, around the time my now-wife and I relocated to Montana, Todd Orr, a U.S. Forest Service employee, had his face ripped off by a bear, despite using bear spray. His video selfie about the attack went viral, and it led me to wonder: if spray didn’t work for an experienced professional, why would it work for me?
This question sent me down a research rabbit hole about bears and their behaviors. And I ended up working with Orr to put together an article and video for Outside around a local course taught by a retired Navy SEAL that seeks to demystify bear attacks and prepare outdoor enthusiasts for encounters with them. This course involves firearms, so the article proved controversial. Adventure Journal ran a now-deleted piece on its website accusing me of being a n00b, with no real clue about bears, and I got a slew of hate mail from animal lovers.
The criticism struck me as odd, since I too, am an animal lover. I’d attempted to write a nuanced article explaining that knowledge—tools and training to prevent or deescalate encounters with wild animals—is powerful, and that avoidance is likely your best strategy. But, if someone is about to get their face ripped off by a bear, a gun may be a solid last-ditch option. The point I was trying to make? Simply giving tourists a can of bear spray and letting them wander into the backcountry isn’t enough to prevent conflicts with predators.
All the mean names people called me pointed in one direction: I wouldn’t succeed in getting my point across without also explaining why bear spray is often inadequate. So, I picked up the phone and badgered the famously reclusive researcher, Tom Smith, who’d studied the effectiveness of bear spray and firearms, until he agreed to talk to me.
2. Sticking Together May Be More Effective than Bear Spray or Firearms
From my conversation with Smith, I learned he had never actually set out to compare the efficacy of bear spray with that of firearms in bear deterrence, despite the titles of the two reports he produced: “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska” and “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska”. The bear spray versus firearms comparison was actually crafted by the public relations department at Brigham Young University (which was paying for his research at the time), and had more to do with generating headlines than it did actual science. Smith told me he’d put together the bear spray study in an effort to provide data to federal land-management agencies looking to equip their field workers with the spray. That’s why most of that study’s encounters involved deliberate hazing (“hazing” is the technical term for deterring wildlife from repeating undesirable behaviors). The firearms study didn’t involve hazing at all, but was rather focused narrowly on identifying what caused firearms to fail during actual bear attacks, not to create data around failure rates. I remember Smith sounding befuddled as to why us normies couldn’t understand that.
While firearms are, for obvious reasons, much more effective at killing bears than spray, many people (myself included) don’t want to kill one while walking in their habitat. Smith pointed me toward another study he’d conducted as containing actual, effective information on how to avoid conflicts altogether, just one that never received much attention from BYU’s PR department. In researching all documented conflicts between brown bears and humans in Alaska between 1880 and 2015, Smith found no incidents in which bears made contact with a group of two or more humans who stuck tightly together. That’s right, simply standing shoulder to shoulder with another person is, according to his research, more effective than either bear spray or firearms.
I’ve actually put this knowledge to good use. Now, when I hunt, hike, or explore grizzly country, I always go with another person, or my dogs. I keep those dogs on a leash anytime the bears might be active, and I keep my wife or friend within arm’s reach. And—knock on wood—that’s worked for me.
Walking the dirt road to the cabin one evening, my wife, dogs, and I found ourselves unintentionally out later than expected. The sun had just gone down when I looked behind us and saw two eyes glowing from a large shape about 50 yards away. We stopped, the animal watched us, and then turned and retreated into the woods. No animal or person had to get shot or sprayed with capsaicin, the chemical deterrent in bear spray, simply because we wanted to stretch our legs.
3. Technology Is Imperative for Safety
When the pups are off-leash at the cabin, I keep tabs on them with a Garmin dog-tracking system. It’s the only device out there that actually works. As you can see in my Instagram post above, predators and dogs tend to be interested in the same stuff—Runningwolf loves that I’m able to keep him up to date on every kill in the area. The system also helps increase my own safety. If a dog gets into trouble away from the house, I’m able to locate them directly rather than go on a search, minimizing the amount of time I may have to spend in predator habitat, especially after dark.
As you can see throughout this article, motion-sensing trail cameras have also helped me build an idea of what animals are active in the area, when they’re there, and which areas or corridors they tend to move through. We’ve been through a few iterations of these cameras, and the latest cellular trail cameras from Moultrie, the Edge, have worked better than anything we’ve yet tried. The photos they capture inform decisions like when not to let the dogs off-leash. And, it can also give us an up-to-the-minute heads up when stuff actually goes down. Paired with infrared motion sensors that trigger alarms in the cabin, I’ve got the cameras set to upload anything they capture immediately. So, if we get an alarm that something is moving around at the top of the driveway, I can now simply pull up my phone, open the Moultrie app, and see it’s a moose or fox, rather than a human predator, and simply choose to stay inside until the animal leaves.
4. When They Encounter Wildlife, Dogs Can Be Unpredictable
Grizzlies sleep most of the winter, so from December through March, I like to let the dogs run. They need the exercise, and my poor muscles can use a break from their pulling. But this can lead to other problems because mountain lions are most active and wolves retreat to lower elevations in winter.
Dog etiquette in the backcountry is another topic that frequently sparks outrage. Whenever I write about the responsibilities inherent in taking dogs off-leash outdoors, or some of my pets’ many experiences chasing predators off my property or out of my campsite, the hate mail flows. I find that curious, because again, speaking from the perspective of an animal lover, dogs are proven to deter wildlife from hanging around places they shouldn’t.
The lions, wolves, bears, and moose near my cabin are massive, and not creatures I ever want my dogs to come into physical contact with. A fundamental psychological difference between a domestic dog and a wild animal shapes the conflict. Wild animals spend their entire lives immersed in a fight to survive against a hostile world. No matter their size or capacity for violence, that mountain lion or bear knows that a single broken claw, or infected wound, will limit its ability to hunt, and could eventually cause it to starve to death. My dogs know dad has their back. So, when they see a threat, their calculus isn’t survival. They run at the lion or bear, the lion or bear runs away.
Of course, I worry about my little buddies. This is the main reason I adopted Teddy, an Anatolian Shepherd, arguably the most effective livestock guardian breed, soon after we moved to Montana. I figure she adds enough muscle to deter wild animals from messing with our pack. But, that could also be my human bias getting in the way of reality.
On a hot day last summer, I was sitting on our porch reading a book when a black bear wandered up out of the woods, right up to my chair. My big dogs slept through the entire encounter, while Kit, a tiny 25-pound cattle dog belonging to a buddy, barked up a storm and chased the bear half a mile through the woods all on her own.
We haven’t yet tangled with wolves, which remain famously shy. I don’t know if the dog and human scents we spread simply deter wolves more than other predators, or if natural quirks in the landscape keep them from coming much closer than a mile or so from the cabin. That said, we can still hear them. My oldest dog, Wiley, has always had a solid howl. And hearing him call back and forth with an actual wolf pack will forever be one of my favorite memories with him.
I can’t say the same for the night a big mountain lion came and sat on the porch for an hour. I’m not sure what his motivation was, but the next morning I found his tracks walking straight across the frozen lake, right up to the cabin. He sat out there screaming and making a racket, while my dogs went crazy inside. If you’ve never tried to hold 300 pounds of a freaking-out dog in a single headlock, I would not recommend you try. I’m just glad my arms got more scratches than the window frames.
Bottom Line: Living with Predators Is Humbling
That night was a good reminder that no matter how much we learn, or how much we try to reduce risk, or how many dogs my wife let’s me bring home, we are still choosing to live in a place that will always be other animals’ homes, too. It’ll never quite be totally safe or totally predictable. And that’s what makes it so cool.