Top of the Food Chain?

The Trekkers had an “interesting” experience a few weeks ago.  We were snowshoeing on the Deerfield Trail, just off the Mickelson Trail, in the central Black Hills.  We were trudging down a forest road, just tromping along.  It was a lovely day! The sun was shining in a bright blue sky, the birds were tweeting, we were happily enjoying our own, peaceful, little slice of paradise.  That all changed when we wandered around a bend in the road and came upon a deer…that had seen better days (or, at least, what was left of it). 😳  I’ll spare you the grisly details, except to say it was a bit unnerving to see blood spatters scattered along a lengthy span of the road.  It raises the hairs on the back of your neck, a bit, when you come upon this type of grisly site.  Our senses were immediately heightened to the possibility that we may not be alone out there, especially as mountain lions are known to guard their kills.  (We never saw or heard any sign of the predator, fortunately.)  

There wasn’t much remaining of the deer other than the head and spinal column. While some birds were still snacking on the remnants, we assumed any larger predators had already had their fill and wouldn’t be returning, though we opted not to stick around and find out. 😝  We assumed it was a mountain lion kill, as there weren’t many tracks to be found in the snow.  It appeared there may have been a coyote or two that had come by. We surmised this because cats usually cache their kills, but in this case, lengthy drag marks had been left in the snow.  We didn’t see any obvious evidence of a pack so it may have been a loner.  Coyotes have been known to scavenge and even try to steal kills from mountain lions (they are a lot braver–stupider?–than I am.) 😝  

I didn’t take any pictures, for obvious reasons.  I try to avoid anything too grisly, and it felt a bit disrespectful to the dead.  In a bit of an odd contrast, there was one interesting sight–amongst the gore–where you could see marks left in the snow from where the wings of flying scavengers had whisked across it as they landed.  It felt odd to see something so beautiful in a scene full of death.  

It’s humbling to view a sight like that.  This isn’t the first kill site we’ve ventured upon while traversing the wilds, and I’m sure it won’t be our last.  Though it was one of the more gruesome sites we’ve encountered, I have found my anxiety surrounding these situations continues to abate with repeated exposure.  We’re always careful to watch and listen for critters, and we don’t hang around these grisly scenes long.  It seems brutal, but it’s a perfectly natural act.  The mountain lion gets hungry (and if it was a female, she may either be pregnant and near birth, or may be caring for newly born young in a den).  The predators also provide a necessary control on the local deer population.  Without them, the number of deer would quickly grow out of control, to the point that the natural resources of the local area would be depleted and wouldn’t be able to sustain them, eventually leading to famine and starvation within the species (and possibly that of other animals living in the local area).  So, this is, obviously, a necessary service.  I am reminded of when I was a child, and my family would watch the show “Nature”, every Sunday night on the local PBS station.  A favorite saying of one of the narrators was, “where there is something to eat, there will be something to eat it.”

This situation offers a stark lesson and a reminder that nature isn’t kind.  It isn’t always pretty and it certainly isn’t always gentle.  It favors the strong at the expense of the weak.  Nature isn’t “fair” and it isn’t “compassionate”, it’s all about survival of the fittest.  We must remember this when we venture out into the wilderness, especially because this policy applies to us as well!  We must always respect Mother Nature when we set out to commune with her.  We can never turn our back on her because, when we embark on a wild adventure…we become part of the food chain…and we aren’t necessarily on top! 😳

There are various methods you can use to protect yourself when out in the wild, some are more useful than others: 

One of the biggest and easiest to remember is to not venture out alone.  This isn’t always a popular opinion, but I stand behind it 100%.  Not everyone has human companions to adventure with (though this offers a good motivator for locating some), while others truly enjoy their solitude and prefer to head out alone (or just with a four-legged companion).  The bottom line is though, being out in the wilderness alone puts you at far greater risk of both injury and animal attack.  Cell phone service is frequently spotty in these areas and all it takes is one wrong step to sustain an injury that will make it impossible for you to hike out.  If you don’t have good cell service where you’re located, that leaves you with no choice but to crawl to a place you can get decent service.  This could require hundreds of feet (at a minimum) of dragging yourself over unforgiving terrain.  Your four-legged friend can’t offer much assistance in this instance (no opposable thumbs 😝).  

If you can avoid injury, it is still more likely that you could be at risk of wild animal attack when alone.  Your four-legged friend will be able to assist in this matter, as you’ll both make noise to warn away any wild animals.  Your animal companion can also serve as a deterrent, though don’t allow them to antagonize a wild animal.  Moose, especially, hold no fear of dogs and will attack if they feel threatened.  Any time you are present in a group (of at least two or more), you make more noise, that’s just physics. Even if none of you speak, the sounds of your feet, or snowshoes, or skis (or paws) making their way through the environment, creates quite the clamor. Humans are inadvertently loud, and we also stink of awful things like shampoo and soap. 😉  Animals know those smells and sounds aren’t “natural”, so they prefer to just avoid us if they know we’re around.  Venturing out in a group can really assist with this.  

Firearms:  this is a controversial subject. (Anything said on this subject is meant to be US-centric.  I can’t speak to any laws outside the US.)  I’ve mentioned before that I lean Libertarian, so I fully support the 2nd Amendment and the responsible use of firearms.  This is a personal choice that we all must decide for ourselves.   However–and I can’t stress this enough–“responsible use” means following ALL the Federal, State and local laws of the area where you are located (whether you agree with them or not).  Always remember that laws can vary greatly between states with lenient gun regulations (like South Dakota) and those with much stricter laws (such as California or Connecticut).  It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to educate yourself on the laws of the local area.  Ignorance is not an excuse.  It should also be noted that, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time.  During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries.”  

And on that note…

Bear Spray:  I am a big believer in this, though again, it must be used responsibly.  People and pets can be severely injured with it, so please, treat it with the respect it deserves.  Though it’s legal in most states, some have strict laws regarding its use, and again, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself on these.  The biggest thing to remember with bear spray is to ONLY SPRAY DOWNWIND!  (This may seem obvious, but in an intense situation, this concept could be easily forgotten.)  If you spray into the wind, all you’ll succeed in doing is making yourself an incapacitated, pepper-flavored snack. 😝  It should also be noted that this is NOT to be used as a repellant.  It should NEVER be used unless you feel an attack is likely/imminent and then only as a deterrent.  Educate yourself on the use of this product BEFORE it is needed.  

It should also be noted that “bear spray” can be used on any animal that is posing a threat, it doesn’t have to be a bear.  One thing I like about this method is that it is intended to be non-lethal.  It will, likely, cause intense pain to the animal, but any damage should be temporary.  Bear spray is pepper spray, on steroids.  It is nothing to be played around with.  However, if it is used successfully, while the animal will be uncomfortable for a time, the experience will serve as an important and unpleasant reminder that getting too close to humans results in pain.  The goal being, in the future, the animal will do all it can to completely avoid a human to begin with.  This negative reinforcement is a behavioral method for deterring the animal.  (Ever burn your hand by touching a hot stove when you were a kid?  Did you touch the stove again?  The same principle applies here. 😝)

I don’t bring this situation up to scare people.  I LOVE spending time in the wild (and that includes in “Big Cat and Grizzly Country”).  It can be such a rewarding experience, I want to encourage everyone to try their hand at enjoying it.  I just want people to keep in mind that when they do venture out, that you’re leaving behind the safety and security of our dull, civilized lives.  This is a good thing, but it’s something that needs to be kept in mind and respected.  Follow these guidelines and you’ll increase your likelihood of having a safe, enjoyable adventure.  

Humans may not rank at the top of the food chain when we set out into the uncivilized, natural world.  Fortunately, we were blessed with intelligent brains that make up for what we lack in brawn.

 

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