Camping: How to Cope with Nuisance Wildlife

Posted by  Sunday, May 25 2014 6:00 am
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John Q. Camper was having a nice visit. He arrived at the state park late in the morning, set up a small tent, stowed his gear and food inside, then decided to take a hike down one of the park trails. When he returned, he noticed a bag of food overturned near the entrance of the tent. He went over to check it, and that's when the skunk — munching on Twinkies in the paper sack — sprayed him in the face. Not only did the skunk spray temporarily blind him, it ruined his tent and everything inside.  
     

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Remember to pack up all food and trash at your campsite and properly dispose them, as food will attrach animals if left behind.

At another campground, Charlie Q. Camper is trying to figure out what happened to the cookies he just opened and placed on a picnic table. He'd laid the snacks down momentarily while he walked to the restroom, and when he returned, half the package was empty. No one was in sight so he was puzzled — but not for long. As he sat staring at the half-empty cookie bag, a jay swooped down and grabbed another Nutter Butter.

That incident was minor compared to what happened that night. Something awoke Charlie, something cold wriggling against his leg in his sleeping bag. He grabbed a flashlight, carefully unzipped the bag and found a small copperhead that had squeezed into the bag next to him. Charlie froze for a moment, paralyzed with fear, then carefully slid out of the bag and used a stick to lift the snake and carry it outside. He thanked his lucky stars he hadn't rolled over on the serpent and gotten bitten.     
   

Little Johnny Camper wasn't quite as lucky. He was eating lunch at a picnic table with his family, and when he lifted a soda can to take a drink, a yellow-jacket stung him on the lip. Johnny is allergic to insect stings. Fortunately, his mother had brought along a sting kit containing the medicine needed to counteract Johnny's allergic reaction. She gave him a shot, and Johnny was okay except for a grossly swollen lip that was painful for several hours.
       

One reason we enjoy camping is because of the opportunities it provides to commune with Mother Nature. As the campers above learned, however, Mother Nature can sometimes be a nuisance or even dangerous. Seeing critters around camp can seem nice until those critters start causing problems.        

There are some basic guidelines we can follow, however, to help make our experiences with wild animals less stressful for them and less dangerous for us. The first rule is to check your warm and fuzzy feelings at the door because these aren't cartoon characters. They're wild animals that can be unpredictable. It's best to discourage visits by most animals, both for your sake and the critter's.      

Food Problems        

As the scenarios at the beginning of this story indicate, food is one of the primary wildlife attractors in camp. It may seem like you're doing the right thing when you feed a family of hungry raccoons that visits your camp, but if one of those coons bites you, it will have to be destroyed and you'll wind up taking painful rabies shots. Nobody wins.        

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Smart campers store all foods, including dog food and horse feed, in closed, wildlife-resistant containers.

Likewise, feeding the semi-tame crow that's been coming around may seem really neat until that same crow flies off with your car keys. Crows and ravens like shiny objects almost as much as they like Oreos and potato chips.        

Smart campers store all foods, including dog food and horse feed, in closed, wildlife-resistant containers. They also keep sleeping bags, tents and sleeping areas free of food and beverage odors. And they never sleep in clothes that were worn while cooking.        

Keep a clean camp. After meals, wipe down tables and chairs. Wash dishes and utensils immediately and dispose of wastewater downwind, at least 100 feet from your sleeping area. Store odorous items such as garbage in wildlife-resistant containers.

When leaving camp, pack all food scraps and trash in sealed plastic bags and take it with you for proper disposal. When these items are left behind or buried, they attract animals to campsites, increasing the chance of bad encounters either for you or the next campers.      

Hunting Camps     

In hunting camps, there are additional precautions you should take, especially in areas inhabited by bears:

• Wear gloves and an apron when dressing game to reduce odors on your clothing.

• When you gut an animal, separate the carcass from the entrails. Then quickly remove the carcass from the area. The longer a carcass is left in the field, the greater the chance of a bear-human conflict. Be sure not to leave entrails within one mile of a trail, campsite, picnic area or parking lot.

• Don't store game carcasses too close to camp or near a trail. Bears attracted by the smell may cause problems. You also should remember to take a pulley system and rope to camp so you can hang game and food out of reach of bears. Carcasses and food bags should be at least 10-15 feet above the ground and four feet out from the supporting structure.

• Hang game and food items so they can be seen from a distance. This allows you to observe the items when you return. If a bear has claimed the food for itself, you can avoid it. Surrender the carcass or food to a bear if he has already begun feeding on it.

• Knives and other tools used when dressing game should be washed thoroughly and stored with your game.

Mosquitoes, Ticks and Other Bugs        

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To prevent stings, watch for and avoid nests of stinging insects.

Biting bugs such as mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, horseflies and gnats can quickly bring an end to your comfort around the campground, so take along something that will repel these little nasties. Citronella candles and the various bug repellent devices now on the market may help keep them away from the immediate area, but for thorough protection you may need to apply a good insect repellent to your skin.        

For added protection, wear a hat, long-sleeve shirt and long pants. Camp in open, wind-swept areas if possible and use insect-proof tents with fine mesh screens.      
  

Stinging insects such as wasps, bees, hornets, velvet ants and fire ants also can cause problems, especially for those allergic to stings. People vary in their reactions to stings. Most have only temporary discomfort. But some go into severe, sometimes fatal, shock. A doctor-prescribed medication should always be carried by people allergic to stings.        

Stings happen when you least expect them. You drink a bee with your soda pop. You sit on a soft dirt mound of FIRE ANTS! You snag your fishing line on a limb attached to a hornet nest. You drive your tent stake through a nest of ground yellow jackets.  
     

To prevent stings, watch for and avoid nests of stinging insects. Wear shoes outdoors. Don't wear perfume and bright-colored clothing outdoors as these attract stinging insects. Don't leave food exposed outside and don't swat at stinging insects.      

Mammal Pests        

Little critters like mice and porcupines may not cause campers the sleepless nights we often have when visiting bear country. But no one wants to wake up and find a mouse-sized hole in a brand-new backpack, or porcupine tooth-marks in a favorite pair of perfectly broken-in boots.        

With these animals, you need to remember, it's not what you call food that counts; it's what they call food that counts! That includes cooking utensils, toothpaste, sunscreen and garbage. It can also include T-shirts, boots and the hip-belt of a pack, all of which can taste delicious to salt-loving porcupines and even deer. Natural fabrics are at risk, as well; mice use them as nesting material.

It's better to place such items in a pack or bag that is hung from a tree branch, even if the branch is only a few feet off the ground. Don't leave your stuff on the ground. When it's up out of the way, animals are less likely to find it.
     

It's also a good idea to keep your distance from bigger animals, even if they seem tame. A deer or elk that seems friendly could lash out with its hooves and cause serious injuries. Female animals with young can be especially unpredictable and dangerous. It's best to always keep your distance, and don't feed animals, even if they come into camp looking hungry. It's a strong temptation to feed seemingly friendly wildlife, but that accomplishes two negative ends. It makes them dependent upon human food, and it encourages them to hang around a human camp, both of which can be dangerous for them.    

Snakes        

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Watch where you step and where you place your hands.Carry a first-aid kit.

Snakes occasionally turn up in campsites, but you can reduce problems with them if you follow these precautions.  

• Camp in an area that's open, with no brush, fallen trees or rock piles nearby.

• Don't handle snakes or provoke them; most bites occur in this way.

Learn the types of snakes likely to be encountered where you're camping, particularly venomous species, and keep your distance.

• Wear shoes when walking outside, and use a flashlight at night to light your path. Always watch where you step and where you place your hands.

• If someone in camp does get bitten, seek medical attention immediately.

A Final Word

This article isn't meant to discourage you from enjoying wildlife around camp. When you're doing so, however, use good judgment and a little common sense. Don't inadvertently place yourself in a situation that could cause harm to you or the animal.

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Last modified on Wednesday, May 28 2014 12:14 pm
Keith Sutton
expert

With a resume listing more than 3,500 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country’s best-known outdoor writers. In 2011, Sutton, who has authored 12 books, was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a “Legendary Communicator.” Visit his website at www.catfishsutton.com.

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