Kris Phillips rides her horse Nick through a trail at Miller Peninsula State Park near the area were a bear suddenly sprang out from the bushes and lunged at two horses and riders. A likely scenario is the bear was warning them they were too close to her cubs. Notice how the horse has one ear cocked forward and the other ear back as he listens to the sounds around them. (Kris Phillips)

Kris Phillips rides her horse Nick through a trail at Miller Peninsula State Park near the area were a bear suddenly sprang out from the bushes and lunged at two horses and riders. A likely scenario is the bear was warning them they were too close to her cubs. Notice how the horse has one ear cocked forward and the other ear back as he listens to the sounds around them. (Kris Phillips)

HORSEPLAY: Watch out for wildlife on the trails

DID YOU HEAR about the bear jumping out at two horses and riders at Miller Peninsula State Park? On July 29, a bear suddenly burst out of the bushes behind them and lunged at the second horse as the two were casually riding single file on a trail that meandered through the woods. Frightened, the horses bolted away and fled, crashing through the bushes and trees to get away, leaving them all with cuts and bruises. The second horse got hurt the most, coming up lame on one leg.

Sandra Coen emailed and asked me to alert other trail users about the sighting. She said it happened to her friend Shellie Torrence and another friend who wishes to remain anonymous.

Was it truly an attack? Some folks might say since the horse wasn’t hurt by the bear itself that it more an encounter than assault; that it was likely a mother bear simply warning the riders they were too close to her cubs. Tell that to the frightened riders!

“It was pretty intense. Our horses freaked out and just panicked,” Shellie told me. “They jumped into the bushes and hit a couple of trees. Her horse, and then she, hit me. I turned around and saw the bear charging at us, and we just took off.”

After they stopped, they saw the other horse had some lacerations and then refused to walk forward, so they got off and the horse let them walk it back to the trailer.

“We really don’t know what’s going on with it, but we’re giving her Bute and she’s feeling better now,” Shellie said. “It was all scary and crazy!”

Shellie notified the state Department of Fish and Wildlife office about the bear and asked them to post warnings.

“What if it was an older lady walking her dog out there and the bear went after her?” she asked. “Or if it happened to riders who aren’t as experienced as us? It could have been very bad. People need to be warned.

“So it definitely was a very dangerous situation.”

She understands the bear may have had cubs, and that’s why it charged, and she bears no ill will against the bear, but she does want people to know about the danger.

She returned to post warning signs at the Miller Peninsula trailhead and parking lot.

When I spoke with her, she was unsure what action WDFW was going to take, other than to go there to see if the bear was still around or if it had moved on.

I contacted the office to find out more but haven’t heard back.

Bears usually do their best to avoid humans. But do bear in mind, if the bear truly wanted to hurt them, she could have easily chased after the fleeing horses (bears can run just as fast as horses) and then used her mouth or one of her sharp claws to cut their flesh.

The incident was a good reminder to all of us living on the North Olympic Peninsula that we live in a mountainous area teeming with wildlife. We have black bears, mountain lions and coyotes, and as we humans build more trail systems that go through their habitat, we have greater chances of encountering them.

Still, they are out there, so we need to pay particular attention to our horse’s body language on the trail. Is the body tensing up and suddenly walking stiff-legged? Is its tail raised a bit and swishing more than usual? What about the ears? Their ears have 16 auricular muscles to aid in 180-degree movements, so if the horse pricks both ears forward and turns to look in the direction of the source — maybe even freezing in place to evaluate if what he’s hearing or smelling is a real threat — be aware it could be the horse is gearing up its fight-or-flight response.

“With all the riders, hikers and bikers around here using the trails I think we’ve become too complacent and tend to forget about the potential dangers of the wildlife around here,” said my neighbor and fellow equestrian, Julie Kustura. “I have a bear bell I can attach to the girth of my saddle, but I rarely use it anymore; guess I’ll hook it up again.”

Bear bells are usually than 2 inches in diameter and make a constant jingling sound. Most come with a silencer option, usually a magnet, to hold the rattling bead in place in times you don’t need it. Some say they work well to alert wildlife humans are coming their way, giving them a chance to avoid humans. Others claim bear bells may actually attract bears who are curious about the jingling sound.

I usually carry a whistle on my saddle. I’ve only used it once. I was riding in the Cassidy Creek area with my then young niece and her friend riding behind me when I saw a bear standing on the trail about 25 feet ahead looking at us. I stopped, calmly told the girls there was a bear and to turn around to walk back down the trail. I backed my own horse up until the bear was out of sight and then started blowing short burst on my whistle. We waited about five minutes then resumed walking up the trail again talking loudly until we passed that section. The bear was nowhere in sight; danger averted.

Kathy Bryant carries a can of bear spray with her. Used correctly, it’s a good deterrent for lions, and scary human encounters, too. She said she recently tested her sprayer and learned to spray at the base of whatever you’re aiming at because the scent drifts up and then quickly disperses.

“It leaves a very weird scent and taste in the air,” said Kathy. “Even though I shot it downwind the horses could smell it, and I could taste it.”

Bear spray uses a fine cloud of Capsicum derivatives to temporarily reduce a bear’s ability to breath, see and smell, giving you time to leave the area. It’s advised to keep the bear spray readily accessible in its quick draw holster attached to your belt and not stored in your pack.

You don’t have to be a good shot with bear spray. Just put up a cloud of spray between you and the charging bear. That should buy you enough time to get away.

The point to always keep in mind when walking, hiking or bicycling is black bears can be nosy, and they are constantly searching for food. That’s why, if you’re hiking and camping, it’s important to pack it in scent blocking bear canisters. If you don’t own one they’re available for free, along with permits and reservations, through the Wilderness Information Center at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, located at 3002 Mount Angeles Road in Port Angeles.

If you have a bear encounter call WDFW enforcement office at 360-902-2936. In the meantime, keep your distance from any wildlife and stay alert to possible encounters. As always, have a happy trail ride.

________

Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.

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