Fall may very well be the best time of year to be outdoors. The oppressive heat from the dog days of summer quickly commits to memory amid the cascades of color that seep from trees sprawling over the rolling hills and mountainsides of the backcountry.
Even a slow drive along a country road boasts the beauty of the season, and reasons are numerous for getting out there and enjoying the outdoors one last time before the harsh, gray winter blankets the pleasures of nature in layers of heavy, white snow.
Whether hiking, hunting, or just enjoying the scenery of the year’s most colorful season, getting out into nature is therapy for the soul for many. The outdoors, and all the living things in it, are treasurers. But, it is important to remember that safety is important in all seasons.
In North America, animals spend the fall season transitioning just like the leaves on the trees. While the preparation for winter in the animal kingdom is fascinating in its own right, many North American animals can cause serious harm to humans with little or no notice during this time.
While any avid outdoorsperson knows the dangers of big game animals and the precautions one should take to avoid violent confrontations, thinking about these animals and how they spend the autumn preparing for the winter is worth some time and effort in order to better prepare for excursions into the wild.
Foxes and coyotes grow thicker and denser coats to prepare for colder temperatures. Other animals even change the color of their coat in an attempt to disguise themselves from predators during the winter. Many animals in the wild ride out winter using these methods. Others, like bats and bears, simply go to sleep.
Bears, in particular, have a very active late summer and early fall. While getting ready for hibernation, or torpor (it’s been a topic of debate), bears gorge on food, consuming nearly 20,000 calories per day, and drinking excessively to help their bodies expel waste. Even though their metabolisms may be slowing during this time, startling a bear, particularly while it is eating, is a sure way to cause an unwanted confrontation.
Grizzly bears can run up to 30 miles an hour, weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and can stand up to 13 feet tall. They are responsible for killing 1 in 35,000 humans annually. Black bears, while not as large as Grizzlies, kill 1 in 100,000 humans annually.
According to the Bear Matrix, a database of over 500 bear attacks that occurred in Alaska since the 1900’s, hunters are the most at risk of bear attacks, largely due to their stealthy hunting practices and the effects they have when surprising a bear.
Roughly 30,000 cougars live in the western United States. While sightings are rare, chances are if you spot a cougar on the trail, it wanted you to. Cougars can leap nearly two stories high, and can run up to 45 miles an hour. Cougar attacks are rare, but are on the rise as more and more people enter their territories. Cougars more often attack children and lone hikers. Cougars are territorial. They do not hibernate or migrate, and hunt year round.
Moose can be aggressive toward humans in the fall during their mating season, or rut. Male moose, or Bulls, are often more aggressive than females. An aggressive moose preparing to attack might point its ears back like a dog, or raise the hair on its back like a cat. It might also lick its lips repeatedly. A moose will often bluff charge, running forward and then stopping, then running forward and stopping again.
These behaviors are clear signs of an attack. Moose can weigh roughly half a ton, and can stand seven feet tall. Moose can run up to 35 miles an hour, but will often not pursue in a chase.
Bison are unpredictable. Though they may appear graceful or peaceful, they can attack anything at any moment without notice, and for no apparent reason. Using their heads as battering rams, their running speeds of near 30 miles an hour coupled with a weight of 2,000 pounds creates a devastating force that can be lethal.
During the rutting season, which extends into early fall, herds can become unpredictable as older males rejoin the herds causing disruptive fights among the Bulls. Herds are most restless during the rutting season, and Bison become belligerent, unpredictable, and the most dangerous during this time.
The fall is a beautiful time of transition. It is the last chance for many to get out into nature before winter’s hold bares down, driving people indoors to wait for signs of crocus flowers and springtime daffodils. Spending time outdoors is never a bad idea, but remembering that there is an entire kingdom of animals reacting to the weather as well is a smart way to steer clear of danger.