You’re out hiking in the woods. The sun is shining and the hike is pleasant.
On the way down from an overlook, you spot a shoe on the side of the trail, and upon further inspection you find it’s covered in blood.
What happens next?
This scenario was one of a few practiced by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees recently during an attack response training held at Lone Pine State Park. During the training, FWP and other law enforcement officers learned the proper approach for handling and investigating potential animal attacks.
During the scenario following finding the shoe, dispatch alerts Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who investigate the scene where the shoe was found and question the witness. If more evidence is found, the trail is closed, and deputies are alerted to close other possible trail entrances to the same area.
FWP employees survey the area and follow the evidence, in this case the red spatters of blood hiding among the tall grass off the trail. When the missing person is found, duties are split between first aid, calling to emergency services and securing the area in case the animal comes back. In this scenario, it was an actor, cached among the brush downhill from the original trail, meant to mimic the behavior of a predatory mountain lion.
Brian Sommers, FWP Region 1 Investigator, has been leading these types of training sessions for the last 10 years, in the Flathead Valley as well as across the country and in some parts of Canada.
The training sessions alternate between classroom learning and hands-on scenarios, which get progressively less instructor-led as the week goes on.
“The whole point of the training is to prepare people and give them the abilities to investigate a wildlife attack on a human,” Sommers said, noting he prioritizes a comfortable environment in which questions can be freely asked and trainees can leave with confidence. “I’m a firm believer that in scenario training, they have to walk away with a win, or it’s worthless. If you walk away feeling that you lost, then you have that mindset all the time.”
The mountain lion scenario and other scenarios involving bear attacks are all based on real life attacks he and others have had to deal with, Sommers said.
According to Wildlife Management Specialist Erik Wenum, FWP has responded to an average of three to four wildlife attacks per year. It’s a hard number to pin down, Sommers said.
“The frequency is hard to say. Last year by this time we’d already had two attacks that we investigated. This year we haven’t had any, knock on wood,” he said.
The majority of incidents are “wrong place, wrong time,” Sommers added, noting that in those cases nobody has really done anything wrong.
If wildlife is encountered on the trail, Wenum has some advice.
For mountain lions, he advises an “aggressive retreat.”
“You want to make yourself look big — hold your shirt open, stand upright and erect — and all the while you’re trying to back yourself out of the situation. With lions, you can throw things, rocks or sticks or whatever is handy, and then I always encourage people to carry bear spray all the time,” he said.
For bears, it depends on the kind — grizzly or black bear.
In either scenario, it’s important to keep an eye out for the same potential danger spots or hiding places the animal may be in, Wenum said.
“With bears, when you’re out you’re looking for those blind corners or that noisy creek bottom where there’s a lot of background noise and thick vegetation. You want to use the human voice so they hear you coming. They know what the human voice sounds like, they recognize it, and they’re going to bail into the brush and you’ll go right by. By doing that, you’ve avoided that surprise encounter,” he said.
FWP advises that if a black bear is encountered and contact is made, a hiker should fight back as much as they can.
If it’s a grizzly bear, go on the defensive.
“If it’s a grizzly bear and there’s contact, you want to curl up, lay down and play dead. Interlock your fingers behind your head, tuck your face into your stomach and curl up as tight as you can, while your fingers and hands are protecting the back of your neck and top of your head,” he said.
For more information on wildlife and future wildlife-related trainings, visit fwp.mt.gov.