Wildlife biologist Jim Williams knows all about encounters with wild animals: It's his job. He shares his advice for staying safe in the wilderness.
Jim Williams chases mountain lions for a living. When most of us abandon our heated living rooms and voice-operated virtual assistants to venture out into the wild, we’re hoping to avoid encounters of the large and toothy kind. But for Williams, it’s his job.
In his debut book, “Path of the Puma: The Remarkable Resilience of the Mountain Lion,” Williams shares stories and lessons learned from 27 years as a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that has taken him throughout North American puma territory, from the Rocky Mountains to the far south of Argentina.
His travels and research have taught him that successful conservation relies on community. “In my mind conservation is durable if it’s accepted locally, and if it’s not, it’s not,” says Williams. “We need everyone to care. Conservation happens because people care and are inspired. If that’s lost, we’re all in trouble.”
Whether you call them panthers, mountain lions or cougars, Williams speaks about the animals with fascination and respect for the cats’ prowess, calling them “the most efficient predator in the Americas, hands down.” He also notes that even in wild places with populations of mountain lions and other large predators, dangerous human encounters with these animals are very rare.
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“You are at more risk drowning, getting lost, getting hypothermic, or driving in Seattle than you are (getting) in actual contact with a large carnivore,” says Williams. “So you gotta put it in perspective … But it is extremely tragic when it happens. No question.”
Although such animal attacks are rare, they’ve been in the news lately, with two recent fatal cougar attacks in Washington and Oregon. Williams shared the following tips for what to do if you encounter a cougar in the wild.
Go in a group
“Hiking alone is always a concern and running alone is always a concern, because you can have that short range encounter with a bear. And then the outcome’s up to the bear unless you’ve got bear spray to defend yourself. And with a cat typically you’re more vulnerable alone. Hiking in groups, three or more, seems to be very safe.”
“Have communication. Let people know where you’re going, and when you’re coming back. Have a phone. You can use a phone almost everywhere now, and just plan ahead of time.”
“Running from these large carnivores is not advised … if you run you can excite that predatory response in any predatory animal.”
What to do if you see a cougar
“If you do see one and it is following you, we recommend yelling, screaming, raising your arms, make yourself look big, take your jacket off, hold it in the air if you have one, grab a stick and start making a lot of noise … Keep in mind a barking dog will tree an 180-pound male, a big male. You just have to have them snap out of it. Let them know you’re not on the menu if you’re fortunate enough to see the cat first.”
Fight back if you have to
“If all else fails, fight back to have a chance … Throw sand and rocks. They have large eyes. They see the world with large eyes. They hunt at dawn and dusk and at night, so they’re a creature of vision so to speak as compared to a bear that sees the world through their nose.”
Carry bear spray
“Bear spray works on lions too if you can deploy it. Because their eyes are so big and it’s gonna burn. And it’s easy to hit your target. Bear spray’s just a wonderful thing to carry with you. There are multiple brands and it’s pretty lightweight.”
Avoid meal times
“Dawn and dusk for mountain lions is the time when they’re out and they’re looking for a meal, or at night. During the middle of the day, not so much. Again, that’s a generality, but typically that’s what we’ve seen.”
What about bears?
Williams says it’s important to know the differences between grizzlies and black bears. Grizzly bears have a pronounced hump, dished face and long claws, and are typically lighter in color than black bears.
Black bears, the most common bears in Washington state, have longer ears, longer noses and shorter claws. They don’t have a dished face, and are usually black (but not always).
If you see a bear that’s brown in color, it’s likely a grizzly.
Because grizzly bears are more aggressive, Williams recommends backing up slowly and trying to leave the area. However, if the bear charges, your best bet is to use bear spray, Williams says. “If all else fails, you curl up on the trail and you put your belly down on the ground, your hand over the back of your neck (to protect it).” Your backpack can serve as extra protection.
If you see a black bear, Williams says he advises fighting back, because aggression isn’t normal behavior for black bears. “Typically bear spray, again, works, but fight back,” he says.
“Path of the Puma: The Remarkable Resilience of the Mountain Lion,” by Jim Williams, Patagonia Books, 288 pp., $24.95
The author will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, at Patagonia in Ballard, 5443 Ballard Ave. N.W., Suite 1, Seattle.