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What wild animals are there in California that can be dangerous or create hassles, and how do I avoid problems with them?

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American black bears

They are somewhat common in some wilderness areas of California, mostly in the mountains. In their natural state, black bears are thinly populated on the landscape because it takes a large area to support one, and they are also shy of humans. Black bears are not very large; females can be the size of a large dog. There are certain specific wilderness areas in California where there are denser populations of black bears that are habituated to humans and dependent on human food. Examples of such areas are Yosemite Valley and Little Yosemite. This type of bear can be aggressive. The best way to avoid hassles with them is to avoid camping in the specific over-used areas where they exist. For example, you can start a backpacking trip from Yosemite Valley but camp way out in the backcountry. In addition, you can carry your food in a bear-proof canister, which can be either bought, or rented in places like Yosemite Valley. Bear canisters are legally required in many areas of the Sierra.


The same areas with bear problems also tend to have lots of smaller animals that are also habituated to humans and accustomed to begging or stealing human food. These can include squirrels, chipmunks, and marmots. The same precautions that work for bears also work for these animals: keep your food secured.

Grizzly Bears

California has not had grizzly bears for about 100 years, except on our flag.

Wolves

There are no wolves in california

Coyotes

Coyotes are small, shy scavengers that are mainly a hazard to small housepets. If you're lucky enough to see one, it will probably be around dawn or dusk, and it will probably run away into the bushes, or perhaps watch you from a distance. If you have a small dog, don't let it run around off the leash at dawn or dusk in areas where you know there are coyotes. Ditto for very small children; there have been cases where coyotes have bothered toddlers, but your chances of having this problem are probably about the same as your chances of getting bitten by a shark.

Mountain lions

Mountain lions are rare and can kill people, and I don't know of anything you can do about that risk. They sometimes stalk people for a long time without being deterred by yelling or rock throwing. They also sometimes spring out of hiding to attack hikers and mountain bikers.

Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes are pretty common. They're not aggressive. The most common reason for bites is that the snake is sunning itself in the middle of a trail, and a hiker steps on it without realizing that it was there. It's possible to get aversion training for dogs so that they learn not to pick a fight with a rattlesnake.

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    For coyotes I would maybe add that you should not run away from them. – ppl Jul 13 '14 at 17:10
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    Yes, the "not running" applies to mountain lions and black bears as well. It's very rare for either to attack, but if they do you'll want to fight back, as otherwise you're dinner. – requiem Jul 14 '14 at 6:39
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    Typical advice for mountain lines is to shout, wave your arms, make yourself appear larger, and throw rocks. They can be a risk, but mountain lion attacks are relatively uncommon. – nhinkle Jul 14 '14 at 17:20
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    I just don't think it's realistic to be worried about an aggressive, persistent attack by a black bear or a coyote. I haven't ever heard of a single case of such an attack on an adult human. What people need to focus on is food storage. What these animals want is your food. – Ben Crowell Jul 15 '14 at 0:49
  • Another animal that might create hassles is the skunk. Not really life-threatening, but if you (or more commonly, your dog) gets sprayed by one, you'll regret it. – jamesqf Mar 15 '17 at 4:55
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Different parts of California have different wildlife, so you should probably narrow the region. Anyway, I'll talk about the areas I'm familiar with.

In the Santa Cruz mountains, there are a lot of pumas (mountain lions.) Encounters are very rare. The advice is that if you do encounter one, make yourself appear large and noisy by waving your hands and your hiking stick; if you are attacked, fight feriously, using sticks and rocks to try and injure the animal (an injured animal will run away). It is very possible for an adult human to successfully fight off a mountain lion - an adult mountain lion is roughly the size and weight of a large dog.

In the Santa Cruz mountains, there are no bears.

In the Sierra Nevadas, there are a lot of black bears, particularly in the Yosemite area. Black bears are very mild, docile creatures. Normally they want to avoid encounters with people. When encounters do happen, it's usually because they want your food. Again, the same advice applies: yell at them, wave your arms - don't not run (running away triggers the predator instinct). Nor should you attack, of course. But if you are attacked, fight ferociously and try to injure the beast.

I've gone on two 3-day backpacking trips into the Sierra backcountry, and did not see any bears at all. One of the trips was only about 10 miles north of the Yosemite area.

My coworker last year spent 30-days on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking from Washington State into California, hiking along the Cascades and the Sierras, and he never saw a single bear.

Other large, potentially dangerous animals don't exist in California. Back in the old days, there were wolverines, wolves and grizzlies, but those were pushed out 80 to 100 years ago.

EDIT: ... Interestingly, my wife and I are some of the only people in California to actually hear the only wolf that has been living in the wild in California in the past 100 years. We were camping in the Cascade mountains in Northern California a couple years ago, and heard wolf "OR-7" howling.

  • +1. The only thing I would quibble with about this answer is the description of black bears as mild, docile, and wanting to avoid humans. This is true for bears that have not been habituated to humans, but not at all true for those that have. In an area (Little Yosemite) with lots of human-habituated bears, I have had a bear stroll into my campsite, take the food that we were in the middle of eating, and very authoritatively let us know that we should keep our distance until it was done licking up the last cracker crumb. – Ben Crowell Jul 18 '14 at 18:43
  • @BenCrowell. I should clarify: they want to avoid physical altercations with humans. Yosemite bears know that humans aren't going to fight them for the food, so that's why they just stroll in and take it. So it's a toss-up between how much they want the food and how much they will avoid a fight. Generally speaking, they are very mild and docile. One of my hunter friends refers to them as "big fluffy marshmellows" (referring to their timid nature.) Contrast this with grizzlies who have a much more predatory, aggressive nature. – Michael Martinez Jul 18 '14 at 18:51
  • Re mountain lions, your advice may very well be the best option, but based on anecdotal evidence I'm not as confident that it will work. Anecdote #1: I've talked to a guy who was very persistently stalked by a mountain lion, even though he did all the things you suggest. He escaped to the trailhead while keeping it from rushing him. Anecdote #2: A friend of a friend was killed by a mountain lion while she was riding her mountain bike. There's no way to know exactly what happened, but clearly she was not able to fight it off. I suspect she was attacked from behind and never knew what hit her. – Ben Crowell Jul 18 '14 at 19:00
  • @BenCrowell. The reason mountain bikers and joggers have a higher rate of attack is because their movement triggers the predatory instinct. As for how aggressive the mountain lions are? Very not so. I have a friend who tracked a cougar up into the mountains of Colorado, pitched tent and waited for three days to get a photo. On the last days, he was sitting at his campsite reading a book, looked up and saw the cougar looking at him. He reached for his camera and snapped a photo. All he got was the hind legs of the creature as it ran away. – Michael Martinez Jul 18 '14 at 19:05
  • @BenCrowell.Regarding whether the advice will work: well, that's luck of the draw. It depends on your strength, your grace under pressure, and on luck. But what else can you do? It's your only option. I always carry a hunting knife when I'm backpacking. If you're worried about getting attacked by animals, you should probably carry one too. – Michael Martinez Jul 18 '14 at 19:08

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