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I'm wondering how common it is to see or encounter large carnivores like bears and mountain lions in the lower 48 when hiking in the United States (okay, bears are tehnically omnivores, but you get the idea).

It's well known that deaths and serious injuries from wild animal attacks in the lower 48 of the U.S. are extremely, extremely rare. Fear of animal attacks is probably one of the more irrational phobias that a lot of people have, but it's such an instinctual fear that's hard to shake off just by learning about the statistics. Such fear may be in the genes of homo sapiens. See Slate, Technology

Sometimes I think that what I am really afraid of is simply the chance of having a nerve wracking encounter with a bear or mountain lion.

So a question for the highly experienced hikers and outdoorspeople out there: how often do you see or encounter large carnivores out in the wild? For the sake of discussion let's define sighting and encounter as:

  • sighting: saw the animal , but a long distance and/or it ran away quickly
  • encounter: animal was clearly aware of your presence and stayed for several seconds or longer, followed you, or displayed apparently aggressive behavior, etc.

Of course this depends on context, but in the absence of hard data (I doubt there are scientific papers that estimate the probability of encountering a particular animal while going on a hike of length X in a particular place), it's useful to gather a range of anecdotes.

To make this question more precise: please think of this as asking for an "upper bound" on the probability of seeing a bear (etc). We know that the chance of seeing a bear anywhere outside a zoo is "low", but how low is low? How high can "low" be, in typical wilderness areas in the United States?

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    After the US tag was removed, I can answer never. Without a location, the question is too broad. – Weather Vane Nov 25 '20 at 22:45
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    IMO a country should be tagged, to give that question some meaning. When I first read the question I wondered where are you asking about? and then noticed 'California'. I added the tag, because many folks in US forget there is a much larger world beyond its shores and thought you forgot to add it. It should be asking about somewhere that has bears and lions. – Weather Vane Nov 25 '20 at 22:54
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    But please see What types of questions should I avoid asking? Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page. Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much. Asking for anecdotes is just that - an open-ended book. When a new user immediately undoes an edit to the question it looks like "I am determined to ask the question I want to ask." – Weather Vane Nov 26 '20 at 11:24
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    Pick a location, otherwise, this is pretty useless. If you were hiking near Churchill in Canada, polar bear capital of the world, you'd be massively at risk. If you're hiking in the French Pyrenees, the French have eradicated pretty much all their wildlife. Even the Eastern US vs Western US vs Colorado vs Alaska is going to result in very different answers. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Nov 26 '20 at 18:22
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    I now voted to re-open, based on the last lines, which restrict the locations to wilderness. – Willeke Nov 29 '20 at 17:18
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This is highly dependent on a few different factors.

  1. Where you are hiking
  2. How you behave while you are hiking
  3. When you are hiking

I've done some hiking in the Eastern and Western US, and while I can't recall seeing a bear on the East Coast (although there's the general rule to hang bear bags with smellable items), I've got some anecdotes from a 2 week trip to Wyoming.

Factors

Location

Where you are hiking will definitely affect the frequency of sighting bears and other animals like that. Some areas have more, some have fewer, and depending on how frequently the animals are exposed to people, they will also act differently and be more or less bold.

Your behavior

In my trip to the Tetons, we were generally trying not to see bears, so we spent much of that week singing while hiking. Generally bears (especially when not used to humans) will avoid people making noise, so being louder will tend to make encounters less frequent.

Time of year

Bears are most active in September and October, when they're looking to bulk up for the winter, while over the winter you are very unlikely to find one out and about. If it's during the time of year when salmon go upriver, you're more likely to find a bear at a river.


Anecdotes

This was a trip with a large-ish group broken into a couple smaller groups.

  • In a week-long hike in the Grand Tetons, my 6-person group had an encounter with a juvenile bear (which we later learned was no longer with its mother). We came around a bend and the bear was a hundred feet down the trail and stared at us, running off after a little.
  • We also had a sighting of a big bear in Yellowstone, off in the distance in a field.
  • One of the other smaller groups had a definite encounter the previous night at the same location in Yellowstone with what we think was a different bear, which had wandered into their campsite and they actually scared it into a tree, before it eventually ran off.

So, in that 2-week period, 2 groups of 6 people had at least 2 encounters and 1 sighting between the lot of them. On the other hand, I've done a lot of hiking elsewhere, and had basically no encounters or sightings at all. In fact, I've heard more news stories of bears coming at dumpsters in my town than I've seen bears while hiking.

Still, taking precautions is always good, and avoiding encounters in the first place is the easiest way to stay safe.

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    Not only bears will flee from singing humans. All animals will. As Ben Gadd (Handbook of the Canadian Rockies) puts it: if you follow the bear safety guidelines, you won't see any bears. You won't see any other wildlife either. – gerrit Nov 26 '20 at 18:06
  • You can add a time of day factor wrt cougars - they're more dangerous near dawn/dusk. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Nov 26 '20 at 18:20
  • And speaking of making noise on purpose to avoid encountering bears, there exists bear bells with this specific purpose. Here is an example of use (from an otherwise unrelated but excellent video). – hlovdal Nov 27 '20 at 9:13
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    @hlovdal there's the old joke of how to identify the variety of bear based on the contents of the scat. "Black bear droppings are smaller and often contain berries, leaves, and possibly bits of fur. Grizzly bear droppings tend to contain small bells and smell of pepper." – fyrepenguin Nov 29 '20 at 11:43
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In more than forty years of hiking several times a year in the Sierra in Yosemite and in the vicinity of Yosemite, we have encountered black bears ten or fifteen times. None of them displayed agressive behavior, even the two times when we encountered a mother with cubs although both those times she unmistakeably warned us. We froze and the bear and cubs retreated. The mothers were at least as worried about us as we were about them. One mother-cub encounter was outside a lodge in the outskirts of Mammoth. The other was in deep snow near Cathedral Lake after we mistakenly decided that "no bear in his right mind" would be abroad. Hah! She was.

The cubless encounters included (a) our overtaking a bear on a narrow trail; we stopped, the bear tried to hide from us, could not hide, so he found a way off the trail and (b) a bear sniffing the length of my sleeping bag when I was in it to see if there was anything edible in it. The bear certified me as inedible.

Although we have never come close to a tooth or a claw, we have always behaved with the utmost respect when encountering a bear. In the early years, we always bear-bagged, but this doesn't always work with a bear of vast experience. When bear canisters came into use, we used them, and several times were wakened by a bear trying to open them.

I can't say anything about mountain lions or much about Colorado bears.

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I live on an inholding in the Santa Fe National Forest, eight miles by road to the boundary (and nearest neighbor), 4-5 miles as the crow flies to the closest boundary point. Most of the area is above 7000' elevation and is steeply sloped ponderosa forest. In 15 years we have never seen a mountain lion. We've seen some tracks in the snow, but never the cat itself. We've encountered bears four or five times, seen tracks more often than that. There is plenty of game for predators to eat - this is prime elk and deer territory and we routinely see mature (12 point or larger) elk.

One of the locals who works for the oil company drives the forest roads all day, every day for work. He grew up here and has hiked and hunted this area for close to 40 years. He's never seen a mountain lion.

There are mountain lions here - they are hunted with dogs. We've seen the occasional kill in the back of a pickup.

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Black bears are widely present in many suburban areas of the Northeast US. Not just out in the few areas with no human presence, but in neighborhoods, people's yards, crossing main streets, etc.

That's not to say that a given person will see one often unless they happen to live in a specific spot a bear prefers, but out of six days riding rail trails into wooded parts of Connecticut that are heavily populated and crisscrossed by busy roads, I've seen two. One juvenile quickly hid in the jumbled rocks and brambles of a hillside. Another much larger was unconcernedly wandering down the trail for a substantial period of time until vanishing into a wooded area alongside a river, perhaps encouraged by a combination of noise from people and a small leaf-blowing maintenance tractor.

Smaller wildcats such as the Bobcat (Lynx rufus) are well documented in the same area from trail cameras, videos, etc. Occasionally there are claims of sightings of a larger, longer tail "Mountain Lion" / "Cougar" (Puma concolor) however these are mostly dismissed by authorities and biologists as mistaken. A key confirmed exception was a mountain lion killed by a car in CT in 2011, which was believed to have uniquely wandered from the area of South Dakota over several years.

Although I've never personally seen one, a form of large coyote thought to include some wolf heritage is now omnipresent in the Northeast US, largely filling an ecological niche left by the longstanding lack of full-size wolves and cats hunted to extinction in historical times. As an area historically clearcut for farming grows back many small pockets of woods in and around a human presence characterized by homes often with some trees in between, it has developed an excessive population of white tailed deer, giving a role for some predator to fill - and the coyote is the one most comfortable living in proximity to humans.

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Eastern US, Virginia: We have small black bears. The bears are there and they aren't very stealthy, but they also prefer to keep their distance from people. On the trail they will definitely walk away before you spot them if they hear you coming.

The only exception is: Bears and pets don't get along. Usually the only time the bear doesn't just walk away from humans is when there's a dog involved and the dog is threatening the bear. I've heard about off-leash dogs who ran off the trail after a bear that they smelled, when probably the humans wouldn't have even seen the bear otherwise.

Bear sightings are also usually reported a couple of times a year in suburban areas here. The bears don't really like the crowded areas and are just passing through trying to get elsewhere but either a) the person who spots them is in a house and the bear doesn't realize that the person is there, b) the bear is trying to cross a highway, or c) there are just so many people that even when the bear runs away, there are just more people.

In contrast, we have lots of coyotes who even live full time in the suburbs but coyotes are very stealthy--relative to the number we have, coyotes are almost never seen.

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