Bidwell Park’s Most Dangerous Animals
By Jon Aull
Within a few minutes of downtown, you can find yourself in rare animal habitat. The chance for spotting wildlife is one of the big draws of the park. Although the park may seem tame with a full parking lot at Horseshoe Lake on Sunday afternoon, when bears show up at the grocery store we are reminded just how wild it can be. As people convert wildlife habitat to their own uses and tempt them with goodies, this kind of encounter with wildlife is becoming more common. Wild animal attacks are still extremely rare, and you are thousands of times more likely to be killed by a domestic dog or struck by lightning than killed by any of these wild animals. Still, things with fangs and claws are the stuff of our primeval fears. I probably get more questions at the Nature Center about these animals than any others. So, here’s a short list of what the risks are and what to do in the unlikely event of a close encounter.
Prevention of an encounter is always the best advice. As anyone with kids knows, just make a lot of noise and most wildlife will magically disappear. But most nature lovers would like to get a little closer, just not too close.
Mountain Lions (Puma concolor):
Also known as cougars, pumas. It’s been a few years since mountain lions were walking around downtown Chico, but they’re still here in the Upper Park. A rough estimate puts the population at 4,000-6,000 statewide. They are protected animals, no longer hunted here, although you can get a permit to kill a mountain lion that is threatening your stock or property. Where there are hills and enough of the mountain lion’s favorite food, deer, there are mountain lions. They are mostly shy and secretive creatures and avoid people. As studies with radio collared cats have shown, mountain lions can live among people with little or no problems. Still, high profile stories like the 2004 killing of two mountain bikers in Southern California by a mountain lion show that attacks do happen. Even with these, there have been only 15 verified attacks on people and 6 fatalities since 1890 in California.
The Department of Fish and Game recommends that, if threatened by a mountain lion, make eye contact. Make yourself appear as large as possible and pick up small children. Don’t crouch or bend over; it makes you look like four-legged prey. Yell and throw or kick things at the animal. And don’t run unless you want to become a cat toy. Fight back if attacked and protect your neck and head, where they go for the kill.
Black bears are the only wild bears in California, with no records of grizzlies in the wild here since the 1920s. You can see the last California grizzly, our state symbol, stuffed at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Black bears are well known as campsite raiders, especially in Yosemite, where they tear open cars of careless campers who leave food lying around. There have been documented stories of black bears surprising people in their tents or on the trail and biting or scratching. In August, 2006 we had a 300 pound bear in Chico in a mall area that was shot by police as a perceived threat to commerce. There were 52 recorded deaths in all of North America attributed to black bears between 1900-2003, none of those in California. Black Bears are 95% herbivorous, and don’t hunt much, unlike mountain lions. People are far more dangerous to bears, as we’ve seen in Chico, and Yosemite, where a youth group cruelly stoned a young black bear to death in 1996. And of course there is still an active bear hunt in California.
Suggestions for a bear encounter are similar to a mountain lion encounter. Stand tall and try to scare the bear away. Running is useless, as is climbing trees, since bears are fast runners and great climbers. If attacked, hit it in the face with whatever you’ve got.
Coyotes were one of the most successful species of mammals of the last century, actually expanding their range and numbers while other large carnivores suffered from habitat destruction and were hunted to extinction. Unsuccessful attempts at their eradication have shown that they are here to stay. Coyotes have adapted well to living with people, even living in storm pipes, under houses, and in abandoned cars in cities like L.A. Coyote scat is a common sight on Upper Park trails. They have learned that people throw away a lot of food and attract a lot of mice, a preferred food. In Southern California there have been problems with coyotes attacking pets and children at the suburban-wildland interface where new houses are being built. The Department of Fish and Game logs 89 coyote attacks on people in California from the late 70s to 2003, becoming more frequent in recent years. Children are especially at risk. Coyotes become more aggressive during breeding season, from March through August, when they need more food to feed their pups. They may also see dogs in the park as encroachers on their territory.
If followed by a coyote, yell at it and throw things in its direction.
Of the animals on this list, rattlesnakes are the most common in the park. They are dangerous because they’re so small and well camouflaged that you don’t see them until you’ve stepped on them or grasped for a handhold onto what you thought was a tree branch … Every year about 800 people nationwide are bitten by rattlesnakes, and one or two die. Rattlesnakes are all over the Upper Park. I just happened on one the other day, under a rock ledge in the middle of a trail. I wouldn’t have known it was there if it hadn’t rattled at me. Since they love hiding under logs and rocks, it’s wise to not stick your hand in crevices and to step on logs, not over them. The first half hour after the bite is crucial, but don’t panic; panicking actually makes the venom circulate faster. Rattlesnakes use their venom to digest their food, and the same process goes on in your leg. If it’s going to be longer than 30 minutes to the doctor, elevate the bite area. About 25% of all bites are dry, so there’s a chance that no venom will be injected with a bite. Dead rattlers are often found on roads run over by cars, but be careful when handling them, as freshly dead snakes can also inject venom. You can do more harm than good with tourniquets, cutting and sucking and the like, so the best thing to do is to just leave it and get to the hospital. It’s important to note that it is against the rules to harm any wildlife in Bidwell Park, including rattlesnakes, which have their place in the ecosystem.
So when we talk about local bats, we’re talking about a diverse group of animals. Our most common species, and one that may inhabit attics, is the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus). Bats are the second most populous mammals on earth, not far behind rodents. With so many of them, it’s amazing that we don’t encounter them more. This is mostly due to their nocturnal habits. I hate putting them on this list since they’re greatly beneficial and the risk of an encounter is low. Still, most cases of rabies in humans in the US come from variants of the virus associated with bats (24 or 75% of total infections from 1990-2000). Still, that’s only an average of 2.4 cases a year. Dogs are the leading cause worldwide, with 99% of infections, but that problem has been eradicated in the US. Bats don’t carry rabies; rather they contract the disease and die from it, like any other mammal. Only 5-10% of bats tested on suspicion of being rabid test positive. Wider studies suggest an infection rate of less than 0.5 % worldwide. The threat from bats is far outweighed by their usefulness. Worldwide, bats are the most important predators of night-flying insects. Our little brown bat can eat 600 mosquitoes an hour. Rabies can take two forms in bats, a paralytic form and an aggressive form. So if you see a bat on the ground, it may have the paralytic form of rabies. Never touch a bat on the ground. If you must, pick it up with a rubber glove and put it in a container for testing (the bat will be killed). Seek medical attention if infectious material such as saliva gets into a wound, your mouth, nose or eyes. Rabies is very rarely fatal in the US anymore, and the cases where people have died are where they didn’t know they had it and didn’t seek medical attention. A man died in Trinity County in 2003 six weeks after getting bitten by a bat. Still, the risks compared to other diseases are slight. For example, in 1995 in the US there were 11,700 cases of Lyme Disease and 5 cases of Rabies.
These are some of the more impressive dangers the park has to offer, although there is certainly more threat from insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. These animals are all important and necessary to the health of the ecosystem. Learning to live with these potentially dangerous animals means respecting their power while admiring their beauty and wildness.
For more information see the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.