Cougars and rattlers and bears, oh my! What to know about critters in the high desert.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear Bend’s forests are full of critters.
But some are shocked to learn there are a few critters that could put a crimp in your vacation plans by, say . . . eating you.
Don’t freak. In 43 years as an outdoorsy Oregonian, I’ve never crossed paths with any of them. In fact, sightings of these three creatures are rare, and actual confrontations are rarer still.
Nevertheless, it pays to be cautious. With recent cougar sightings on the upper-traverse of Southfork, a bear sighting on Tumalo Creek, and the constant presence of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake in the high desert, I’d like to share a few things you should know about each of these oft-misunderstood creatures.
What to know about cougars
Before I launch into all the scary-sounding stuff, it’s important to note that according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, there has never been a recorded cougar attack on a human in Oregon history. Not one.
Nevertheless, it’s smart to be educated when you’re venturing into the wilderness.
Cougars are elusive and solitary predators, and it’s estimated there are 6,500-6,800 of them statewide. With the average male staking claim to a territory of up to 100 square miles, they’re obviously cruising around Central Oregon.
While most people never see a cougar, it’s likely one has spotted you if you’re a frequent explorer in Central Oregon’s wilderness. Here’s what to keep in mind when it comes to these big cats:
- Keep dogs leashed and small children in sight when hiking in cougar country.
- Avoid jogging or trail riding in low light conditions and in bushy areas where cougars hunt.
- Watch for cougar signs, including tracks, droppings, scratched trees, and food caches.
- Never hike alone, and carry a walking stick that can be used as a weapon if needed.
- Talk, sing, or make some other kind of noise while hiking to reduce your odds of surprising a cougar.
- If you encounter a cougar, respond by making yourself look as large as possible. Hold your jacket open, wave a stick around, make eye contact, do anything you can to look big and scary and threatening. Whatever you do, don’t bend down and don’t run—it’ll trigger the cougar’s chase instinct.
- Unlike bears (we’ll get to them in a second) cougars do not “bluff charge.” Playing dead is never recommended if a cougar charges. Fight back, focusing your attack on the cougar’s face and eyes.
The legend is true. There’s another kind of cougar in Bend, just like in any town where attractive young men make easy prey for women of a certain age.
If you’re looking to be caught by one, wine bars are a good bet. Bend has several amazing ones, including Portello WineCafé and Sip Wine Bar. Even if you don’t spot human cougars there, both places make excellent spots to go for a tasty glass of wine and some nibbles. Sip has ladies’ night every Wednesday with $1 off everything from 4- close, while Portello has wine flight weekends every Saturday and Sunday night.
What to know about bears
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon is home to about 25,000-30,000 black bears (many of which are not actually black, but cinnamon or brown in color).
Plenty of them make their homes in wilderness areas surrounding Bend, so here’s what you should know if you’re hiking, fishing, or camping in bear country:
- Keep campsites clean and sleep at least 100 yards from cooking and eating areas.
- Keep dogs on leashes or in cars.
- Never, ever pick up a bear cub. If you’re concerned it’s been abandoned, contact the Forest Service or Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, but odds are good the mama is nearby watching. And it goes without saying you should never get between a mama and her cubs.
- Use flashlights at night and don’t camp or hike alone.
- Make noise when hiking so you don’t surprise a bear. Some people wear bear bells, while others swear by singing or talking to create noise that alerts bears of a human presence. It wouldn’t hurt to carry bear spray if you’re venturing deep into the wilderness.
- If you see a bear, pick up small children immediately. Remain calm and take steps to identify yourself as human and not a prey animal. Speak calmly and stand still, but slowly wave your arms.
- If the bear comes closer or stands on its hind legs, it’s likely curious and not threatening. Keep speaking in low tones and do not scream or make any sudden movements. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched screech.
- If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways. This allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Do not run, and if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Always leave the bear an escape route.
He may look like a bear, but the massive, shaggy creature found at NW Home Interiors is actually Buddy.
He’s a friendly Burmese Mountain dog who hangs out in the showroom at this fabulous furniture boutique in Downtown Bend.
He supervised my purchase of a massive king bed frame made from repurposed barn wood, so I can assure you his taste is quite exquisite.
What to know about rattlesnakes
While rattlesnakes are common in the high desert, there are a few telling statistics when it comes to snakebites. Roughly 90-percent of victims are male, 50-80 percent of bites are to the hand, and at least half the victims were intoxicated at the time of the bite.
In other words, if you’re drunk and handling a snake on purpose, it kinda ups your odds of snakebite.
But if you’re cautious, alert, and not trying to pet one, your odds of an unpleasant encounter with a rattler are actually quite slim. Snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. Really.
A few tips to help you stay safe in areas where rattlesnakes are found:
- While bears and cougars are most often found in forested areas, rattlesnakes prefer Central Oregon’s more desert-like areas like Smith Rock and the Crooked River Grassland areas. Be especially alert when hiking in these areas, but if you’re hiking above 6,000 feet or meandering around in the city, you can probably chill.
- Since they’re coldblooded animals, snakes hibernate in winter and come out when the sun shines to absorb heat from rocks and the ground. That means you’re most likely to find them sunbathing in rocky, brushy areas, especially near a water source.
- Be especially cautious about where you’re putting your hands and feet when scrambling along rock ledges.
- If you encounter a rattlesnake, move away. It wants to avoid you as much as you want to avoid it. If it starts rattling, it means you’re too close, so back the heck away. The snake’s very last defensive move is to strike, so don’t give it any reason to do that. Snakes aren’t aggressive by nature—they just want to avoid being stepped on.
- If you hear a rattler but you’re not sure where it is, stay calm and locate the direction of the rattle. Do not panic or you risk being bitten when you freak the bleep out and stumble over it.
- Snakebites are rare, but they do happen. What you should NOT do is tie a tourniquet around the affected area, cut the wound, or suck out the venom. There’s also no need to kill the snake. Instead, stay calm and summon medical help. If you’re in a group, send someone else to get a ranger or call 911. Getting to a medical facility quickly is important so a professional can determine how much venom (if any—about 25% of rattlesnake bites are dry) was injected and which type of antivenin is needed.
Often mistaken for rattlesnakes are harmless bull snakes, which are also known as gopher snakes. Compounding the problem, bull snakes like to imitate rattlesnakes by shaking their tails as a defense mechanism.
Your first cue that you might be looking at a bull snake would be the lack of a rattle on its tail. If there’s no rattle, check out the body. Though they have similar patterns, bull snakes are usually cream or pale yellow with black or brown markings, while rattlesnakes are much darker. Also, rattlesnakes have triangular-shaped heads, while the bull snake’s head is usually the same size and shape as its upper body.
Other things mistaken for rattlesnakes in Central Oregon include discarded pieces of rope, cables, and bike inner tubes. Instead of running from them, how about doing a kindness to our environment (not to mention your fellow hikers) and picking up any discarded rubbish you might spot on the trails? For more Visit Like a Local tips, go here.
Now get out there and enjoy Bend!