Living On The Wild Side

Encounters with wildlife increase with dry weather

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Because of our proximity to national forest lands and recent drought conditions in the area, residents of the Rim country are likely to have more opportunities for encounters with wildlife.

How to avoid contact with and what to do when you do encounter a bear, javelina, coyote, mountain lion, bat or other creature is a subject near and dear to employees of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. Craig McMullen, a field supervisor for Game and Fish, is one of four local employees who work out of their homes.

Field supervisors such as McMullen are responsible for enforcing the state's game and fish, watercraft, and off-highway vehicle laws. Besides the four field supervisors stationed in the Payson area, there are two additional supervisors in Tonto Basin and one in Globe.

"The main thing we want people to know is that we are here, and how to get a hold of us if they have a wildlife encounter," McMullen said. But he also said there are some basic guidelines people need to know about living in close proximity to the forest, including some common sense things that people should be aware of regarding the handling of nuisance wildlife.

"Some people like having wildlife around and some don't," said McMullen, who has been stationed in this area for two years. But the same rules apply whether you enjoy wildlife or not.

One of the first rules is to not make food, water or shelter available to wildlife. "Fence your garden, feed your pets indoors, and don't allow your birdfeeder to spill over," McMullen said.

"If you have a problem with animals getting at the food in your birdfeeder, leave it empty until the critter moves on."

Joe Yarchin, an urban wildlife specialist with the Mesa office of Arizona Game and Fish, explains why it is so important not to feed wildlife. "You're not doing them any favors," he said.

"You might literally end up loving a wild animal to death because if a negative interaction occurs from your feeding an animal, it could pay through relocation and even death."

Yarchin said it is important to remember that "the human is always the dominant player in wildlife interactions," and that it is very important to let an animal know it's not welcome when it comes onto your property. "You can make noise, flail your arms, throw something or spray the animal with water," he said.

The key is to keep the animal from starting to feel comfortable around humans.

"If you let that happen, he will end up getting desensitized to humans, and he'll start to include homes and patios in his range," Yarchin said.

While human safety is not usually a factor in wildlife encounters, he said, it's always a good idea to keep young children closely supervised.

"A child over 6 or 7 isn't really threatened, and younger children should be supervised anyway," he said.

It's also a good idea to keep pets supervised and under control. There is a leash law in most communities, and those laws, Yarchin said, are designed to protect wildlife as well as pets.

"People always ask what kind of an impact the wildlife in a given area will have on my pets," he said. "I like to turn that around and ask what kind of impact their pets will have on the wildlife.

"The cat that brings home a bird or a lizard is one thing, but it doesn't even have to be a physical thing. Through their behavior, pets can easily disrupt the behavior of wildlife, especially around reproductive time," he said.

Yarchin said if you keep your pet within shouting distance, you will probably be able to scare off a threatening animal.

Rabies, of course, is always a concern where interactions with wildlife are more common. "We haven't had an awful lot in the Rim country lately, but any mammal can carry rabies," Yarchin said.

The warning signs include an animal that seems to have completely lost its fear of humans.

"If an animal runs toward you and doesn't yield, that's a sign it might be rabid," McMullen said.

Bats are a special concern, Yarchin said.

"It's not necessarily true that if you see a wild animal during the day it's rabid," he said, "but if you see a bat on the ground during the day, chances are it is. It's just a good general rule not to mess with wildlife."

Hopefully, precipitation this winter will be average to above average, thereby reducing the number of what McMullen calls "conflicts" encounters between people and wildlife. When the forest is dry, food becomes scarce and animals venture closer.

A good example is what Yarchin calls the recent "bumper crop" of bears wandering into civilization.

"Between Globe,Tonto Basin and Payson, we've handled 27 bears in the last 12 months," McMullen said.

Most have been yearling males because they are leaving their mothers and trying to find new home ranges, he said.

"But last year we saw bears in all age classes, and all sizes and types. There was just no food out there."

Other animals that have recently been more visible in populated areas include elk and javelina. McMullen said that despite appearances, elk are not becoming more prevalent in the Rim country.

"We monitor forage use for elk. We do game surveys every year. We look at hunters' success, at the bull-cow ratio and at habitat conditions," he said. "The data does not indicate an overpopulation."

McMullen thinks the elk population actually peaked in the Rim country around the mid-1990s.

"The Dude burn provided outstanding forage, but that burn is now 10 years old and the forage is more similar to unburned areas.

"Elk are like any other animal on the urban interface. If they can come into town to get food, water or cover, they will do it."

A report of increased javelina activity in the Rumsey Park area produced a similar response. "They are probably feeding, and they see people as a source of food," McMullen said.

It's important to remember, he said, that javelina have poor eyesight and are very protective of their young.

To report non-emergency wildlife-related issues, call the Arizona Game and Fish Region 6 office during normal business hours at (480) 981-9400. The local Game and Fish number is 474-2264, but McMullen said there is frequently nobody in the office and a response may take several days.

To report a suspected rabid animal, call the Gila County rabies control officer at 474-1210. Emergency non-wildlife-related crimes should be reported to (602) 789-3925.

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