Friday, October 20, 2006

Learning to live with wildlife is a must in Idaho

Snicker if you will. But the two Forest Service employees evacuated by helicopter from a woodlands work site in the Sawtooth Wilderness last month after hearing wolves genuinely feared for their lives.

If their fright was real, their safety and well-being were never really in doubt.

This is becoming a common problem in Western states where the migration of urbanites to rural and woodland areas is exposing inexperienced and uninformed newcomers to encounters with authentic wildlife, with emphasis on wild.

The obvious needs to be said: Humans in new surroundings must learn the ways of wildlife and thus understand how to avoid encounters that can be frightening and potentially dangerous.

Several things need to be understood.

First, most wildlife normally encountered in and near populated areas are instinctively fearful of humans and will avoid encounters.

Second, humans have been displacing wildlife as new housing takes over wildlife habitat. Since wildlife tends to return to familiar places, the sight of bears, fox, elk, deer, raccoons, and even moose is common.

Third, humans unwisely encourage encounters by feeding wild animals, which lessens their fear of humans and is likely to lead them to remain close to human food sources. Feeding small predators, such as foxes, can lure larger predators. And, putting garbage cans out the night before pick-up is an invitation to bears to rummage for pre-hibernation vittles.

Among the true anecdotes about local bears is the one that learned how to open house doors and refrigerators and helped himself to cheese and ice cream.

The experience of the two frightened Forest Service workers illustrates just how an understanding of wolves would've helped relieve their fears.

Several experts pointed out that the sound of wolf howls in mountain areas can sound like they're coming from all directions because of echoes, not because of a huge pack of animals. Wolves also are fixated on prey when hunting wildlife, such as elk, and will ignore humans.

With this somewhat embarrassing episode behind it, the Forest Service says it plans a review of training out-of-area personnel on what to expect in the backcountry and how to act.

This type of orientation would be beneficial for every resident and visitor.

The Forest Service and outdoors groups should devise and make available an inexpensive brochure outlining habits and habitat of various wildlife and do's and don'ts when they're encountered.

The outdoors is a lot more enjoyable when there's no fear attached to a stroll in the mountains.

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