What is Wilderness (Part 13)

What is wilderness? Dave W provides some insights…

IT is a place that is not under human control: a place where people might pass through, but not stay: a land where the wild beasts rule. Before people existed, the world was one vast wilderness. Since we’ve been around, wild areas are less and less common. An antonym would be city or any other noun defining more or less permanent human habitations, e.g. town, village, campsite. A campfire is a very basic method of keeping wilderness at bay.

This, I think, has been the generally accepted meaning of wilderness. I find it a more robust and useful word than ‘nature’, which is usually debased by the attempt to exclude people from the definition. People are part of Nature – we evolved here and we haven’t left yet. People are not part of a wilderness.

Of course, once ‘wilderness’ has been defined by legislation, other definitions may apply, but at least the US Wilderness Act (1964) seemed to follow the general sense: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

I think it is reasonable to define wilderness as a continuum, rather than an absolute. Areas are more or less wild depending on how much control people are able to exert. I don’t think that pollution, exotic weeds, or similar effluvia of human life are of any relevance to defining wilderness. Those do not result from attempts to control an area. Also, I don’t demand that everyone respond the same to wilderness. Some may find it exhilarating and renewing, others may find it terrifying. I’ve been lost in wild areas, so I’ve felt both extremes.

Wilderness Dave

The picture/image is of a wild place, but not a wilderness: White Spruce regenerating in Alberta Aspen Parkland thanks to fire suppression regime (favours spruce), the reintroduction of beaver (eat aspen), and increasing moose populations (eat aspen before spruce) thanks to hunting regulation and extermination of wolves. Click on the image to see more, to gain perspective.

Dave W is a biologist who has worked in North America and Au​stralia and has about 150 scientific publications including one in Ecological Modelling on climate change that Google Scholar tells him is his 13th most significant publication, but that he thinks was just an interesting ‘what if?’ exercise with little or no relevance to any actual ecosystem.

For some other perspectives on wilderness click and scroll here http://jennifermarohasy.com/tag/wilderness/

Perhaps send me your thoughts on wilderness…
jennifermarohasy at gmail.com

56 Responses to What is Wilderness (Part 13)

  1. spangled drongo March 7, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    Imagine being the first to arrive in any land. Of course you would not know it but eventually it would sink in. When our first people arrived after trekking for probably many lifetimes through the wilds of Africa and Asia, the Australian wilderness would have seemed much more human friendly to them with its lack of predators.

    They could sleep much easier at night with just a fire. No wonder they stayed around for a while.

  2. spangled drongo March 7, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    When I was working out around Birdsville in my youth I didn’t have a car and the only way to travel was with a pack horse and riding horses which I would do on my own. To go to faraway towns for special events one simply headed cross country as there were no fences and because the next waterhole was the next step in the journey.

    Aboriginals were not living in any particular area then and you would often come across a small family camped at a waterhole with almost no trappings of civilisation. On one occasion I traded my white moleskin trousers [I had a spare pair] for a boomerang with the male of one such family while the kids and mother sat around the fire.

    I wasn’t particularly aware of being in the wilderness because there were too many things to pay attention to but thinking back, it was pretty close.

  3. Mark March 7, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    Australia, be definition given, has not been a wilderness for fifty thousand years. The green religion has eliminated man…all man…from choice pieces of landscape and turned them into a nature unfriendly weed strewn wasteland. And I mean wasteland!

  4. Debbie March 7, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Main definitions and origins of the word ‘wilderness’.



    noun: wilderness; plural noun: wildernesses
    an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.

    synonyms: wilds, wastes, uninhabited region, inhospitable region, uncultivated region, badlands;


    a neglected or abandoned area.

    “the garden had become a wilderness of weeds and bushes”

    synonyms: wasteland, neglected area, abandoned area, no-man’s-land

    a position of disfavour, especially in a political context.

    “the man who led the Labour Party out of the wilderness”


    Old English wildēornes ‘land inhabited only by wild animals’, from wild dēor ‘wild deer’ + -ness.

  5. Pathway March 7, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    As soon as you label it Wilderness, hordes of people show up and it is no longer wilderness.

  6. spangled drongo March 7, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    I think there would still be parts of this country [and others] where no feral has ever lived.

    That would have to qualify as wilderness.

    Do regular, fluctuating migrants such as birds affect the wilderness of an area, I wonder?

    Dave’s probably right.

    Everything was feral at one stage and there are wilderness areas a lot closer to our back door than we realise.

  7. spangled drongo March 7, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    But here’s a bit of Australian wilderness that’s still kicking on in spite of the doom and gloom:


  8. Larry Fields March 8, 2014 at 6:11 am #

    Here are some random thoughts about wilderness.

    Many moons ago, I had a Summer job as a wilderness ranger in the SE Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The main part of the job was public contact. I tactfully reminded backpackers to please put their campfires dead out before starting out on the next leg of their treks in the morning.

    I also had to remind people to exercise common wilderness etiquette. (Yes, there really is such a thing.) If you can pack it in, you can pack it out. Unfortunately, some yahoos believed that one can do anything he pleases in a Wilderness Area. And an unfun part of my job was picking up after them.

    In the USA, one may not ride motorcycles on trails in designated Wilderness Areas. However it is OK to ride horses.

    For me, a mountain wilderness experience — well away from most others of my species, and their trappings — is a way to reconnect with my Neanderthal roots, and to recharge my batteries. I do not regard the odd deer, marmot, or bird as an intrusion.

    But I’m an introvert. It’s difficult for me to understand, but for extroverts, partying is a way to recharge their batteries. For extroverts, wilderness has a very different meaning.

    Another benefit of wilderness is preservation of endangered species. They are a part of who we are.

    The Klamath Mountains in Nor Cal and Southern Oregon are a biological oasis for conifers (and maybe even for certain hairy bipeds with extra large feet). The popular ornamental tree, Brewers Spruce, is native to the Klamaths, but not to not to any other region on Earth. One could say that the Brewers Spruce is the American equivalent of Australia’s Wollemi Pine. However realistically, it’s necessary to put price tags on the various endangered animals and plants.

    Here in California, a small fish, the Delta Smelt, is considered to be endangered. In their infinite wisdom, the courts have ruled that a certain amount of water must go into the Sacramento River estuary, for the benefit of this fish. And because of the Delta Smelt, Nor Cal farmers are really hurting — especially in our current drought.

    In Australia’s Eucalypt forests, sound wildlife management must be very different than in the USA. To protect endangered animals (and people), it’s necessary to have a prescribed burn every third year or so. (I’m not saying that this is the actual practice.) Otherwise the fuel loads would accumulate until monster bushfires destroyed almost everyone and everything in their paths. Then the Eucalptus roots would send up shoots, and the cycle would begin all over again — minus the slower crispy critters.

    In most N American pine forests, the natural fire cycle is more like once very 10 or 20 years. And except for the chaparral fires in So Cal, our wildfires are less dangerous than the big bushfires in Australia.

    By American standards, a well-managed Eucalypt forest would not look very ‘wildernessy’. The hand of Man would be very evident in the firebreaks on the ridgetops. Ditto for the local volunteers with drip-torches walking along these paths at cooler times of the year.

  9. DaveW March 8, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    I’d agree that Drongo on his horse was passing through wilderness. It may not have been as densely green and ruggedly awe-inspiring as the Sierra Nevada and Klamaths that Larry remembers, but the critical part of the definition is the lack of human control. I imagine the restorative properties were there too.

    The interesting bits about Debbie’s list of definitions for wilderness are the strong negatives: ‘wasteland’, ‘inhospitable’. Except for a minority of the population, the Daniel Boone types (a colonial American infected with wanderlust), I suspect wilderness was rarely a source of inspiration and renewal, but more a challenge and a threat. This began to change only when wilderness became rare. By the time I was growing up, wilderness was perceived as the opposite of a wasteland and something that needed preservation.

    This has resulted in a subtle reinterpretation of the definition of ‘wilderness’ from an area that people did not control to an area where people and their effects must be excluded. I think this new definition is problematic when legislated and leads to the observation that Mark, Pathway and Larry shared.

    Massive wildfires are less common in western North America than in southern Australia, but they do happen and can be devastating. In 1871, on the same day of the famous Chicago Fire, strong winds pushed small fires being used to clear land around Peshtigo in upper Wisconsin into a firestorm that killed between 1500-2500 people. In 2011, a wildfire burned through the town of Slave Lake, Alberta – all 7000 residents were evacuated without casualties, but one firefighter died when his helicopter crashed. Arson, a dry spring and strong winds were to blame, but about 2 million hectares of Canada burn every year – most of the burns are in wilderness areas.

    I well remember the Yellowstone fires of 1988, just before I migrated to Australia. Sadly, the history of Yellowstone National Park, the first in the United States and often claimed to be the first national park in the world (there is some grey here), is replete with mismanagement of its wildlife and landscape – usually with the best of intentions. This history may be one of the best arguments for letting wilderness designated areas alone, but it is also a good example of why what may look like wilderness to us is not. I would be very leery of designating as wilderness any large areas of fire-prone forests with a history of fire suppression and then adopting a laissez faire approach to fire management.

    For many decades (1935 to 1965-75) fire suppression was required on public lands in the western US – and it was very successful, reducing annual ‘loss’ to wildfire to 1/6th or less than before fire suppression. Then came a recognition that fire was part of the landscape, the Wilderness Act (1964), and a change in fire regime that allowed ‘natural’ fires to burn out, at least in national parks and wilderness areas, unless they threatened an inhabited area. Still, not much was allowed to burned in the next couple of decades.

    Much of the Yellowstone area was dominated by even-aged Lodgepole Pine forests on poor soils. Lodgepole Pines are short-lived trees that tend to grow in dense, stands that recruit after a fire. Native Americans found the straight poles useful for their homes and travois. At about 10 cm diameter at breast height, Lodgepole Pines become susceptible to the attack of Mountain Pine Beetle, an insect that girdles the tree and kills it. These dead trees are excellent wildlife habitat, but also add fuel to the landscape.

    Mountain Pine Beetle created numerous patches of dead trees in the extensive lodgepole forests that accumulated during the fire-suppression regime. The winter of 1987-88 was very dry with little snowpack; however, the spring was wet and understory grasses and shrubs did well. Then the rains stopped and the understory turned to tinder. It wasn’t long before the usual weather suspects conspired to produce an inferno.

    The fires were impressive – smoke blackened the sky hundreds of kilometres from the fires. The media had their usual malign influence: hyping disaster, misinforming and bombastically raging about what should be done. The fires were locally disastrous, but overall, tended to reduce the dominance of Lodgepole Pine and produce more of a vegetational mosaic hospitable to wildlife (and less flammable). Large mammals apparently came through with little mortality, but less mobile vertebrates and arthropods were undoubtedly clobbered. The effects are still being assessed, but they seem to have been much less a disaster than it seemed at the time and have resulted in a more ‘natural’ landscape.

  10. Larry Fields March 9, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    I forgot to mention a couple of things. First, the federal goobermint maintains hiking trails in most of our designated Wilderness Areas. (I spent a couple of Summers doing that kind of work for the Forest Service.) This is reasonable. especially for the heavily used ones — like Desolation Wilderness, just West of Lake Tahoe. Without trails, the hoards of hikers would trample too much vegetation, and would cause excessive erosion on some of the steeper slopes. ‘Desolation’ has outstanding natural beauty, but it’s not pristine Nature.

    Second, hunting and fishing are legal in federally designated Wilderness Areas on National Forest land in the USA. (Traditionally, the various states — rather than the Feds — have been in charge of hunting and fishing regulations.) Thus it’s not accurate to say that there is zero economic activity in these large chunks of real estate. And even if one is not a hunter, he can ‘pack heat’ as Grizzly Bear protection in our National Parks — like Glacier and Yellowstone.

    On the other hand, most hunters in the USA never venture more than 400m from their vehicles. This is understandable. It would be a lot of work for a pair of hunting buddies to manually carry a gutted deer carcass 5km (3mi) back to their ute. This leaves most large fauna in our Wilderness Areas safe from bullets.

    My understanding is that the various governments in Australia have gone overboard in locking up large tracts of land. (And in issuing unreasonable restrictions on what farmers and other rural homeowners can do on their own land.) Your penchant for National Parks is OK for future hiking tourists like me, but not so great for people who make a livelihood working the land.

    The Australian “Let Nature do it’s thing” ethos for fire management in Eucalypt forests is not so great either. Hey land managers! Can you say, “fuel loads?” Please remind me to avoid hiking there during fire season.

    And yes, I already know about the precaution of putting a dab of Vegemite behind my ears to discourage attacks by Drop Bears. 🙂

  11. Debbie March 9, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    ‘Various Australian governments have gone overboard. . .’
    There are many places that could only be described as an ‘accident waiting to happen’!
    The native veg legislation that applies to private land is simply not working and the stated pathway to deliver ecological services is a minefield of red & green tape that is not living up to anyone’s expectations. . .including those who work in the relevant govt departments.

  12. spangled drongo March 9, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    The Greens hate the thought of anyone “exploiting” wilderness in any fashion but this has the unintended consequences of leaving these large areas completely unseen, unsupervised and uninspected by the public for whose benefit and at whose cost it is supposedly being done.

    If there are controlled commercial activities like feral hunting, trail walks etc, then people get to see what’s going on in those reserves and notice how govts are spending their money looking after them.

    Many of the trails that were open years ago just aren’t operating because people do not demand it and it suits the green philosophy awa govt budgets to close them down.

    Another huge problem is the feral dingo being given protected status in those govt wilderness refuges that makes it impossible to control all the other feral predators there which has signed a long-term death warrant on our natives.

    Very few people are actually aware of the mayhem that is happening because it is all locked up and they are virtually excluded.

    Group tourist trail walks eg would give more people the chance to see what is happening and the operators would pressure the govt to do something if expected wildlife sightings were below par.

  13. Robert March 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    Some great points, SD.

    The problem with green activists is that they are always wanting to replace outmoded ideas from the 1950s with outmoded ideas from the 1960s. They are a dreary, dated orthodoxy resisting change at every turn. They don’t see themselves as neurotic, potty and old-at-heart – but that’s what most of them are.

  14. Larry Fields March 9, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    Comment from: spangled drongo March 9th, 2014 at 12:19 pm
    “The Greens hate the thought of anyone “exploiting” wilderness in any fashion but this has the unintended consequences of leaving these large areas completely unseen, unsupervised and uninspected by the public for whose benefit and at whose cost it is supposedly being done.
    [ . . . ]
    Group tourist trail walks eg would give more people the chance to see what is happening and the operators would pressure the govt to do something if expected wildlife sightings were below par.”

    Evidence-based activists in a given area could ‘adopt’ one of the trails that was no longer being officially maintained, in a ‘locked up’ reserve. Barebones trail maintenance can be cheap and low-tech. The most important tool is a pulaski (axe and a small hoe on opposite sides of the same tool head). Second priority is a spade.

    For big trees that have fallen across the trail, a 2-person cross-cut saw is nice. (Officials may object to a noisy chainsaw, or to simply cutting a detour around the log.)

    I remember a cross-country hike to a place called Bogus Thunder, on a small tributary of the American River, in the Nth Sierra foothills of California. The leaders carried small pruning shears to cut the Poison Oak. And that was sufficient to keep the way open for those of us who are allergic to the noxious weed.

    It was memorably, because I came close to getting heatstroke, and needed to pace myself much more carefully than was necessary on a cooler day.

    Anyway, the next step is to lead the general public on non-commercial hikes on that particular trail once a month. Everyone could see what’s happening and what’s not happening. Volunteers could post annotated photographic evidence online.

    Even non-hikers could see the gradual build-up of fuel, and perhaps an increase in ferals, and a corresponding decrease in native wildlife, over time. More and more local people would hold the goobermint Greenies feet to the fire.

  15. spangled drongo March 9, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    Robert, very true. ☺

    It’s so pervasive it is hard for a new broom to make any headway.

    In northern NSW someone is standing up to them and running baiting programs in Nat Parks which is having good results.

    People don’t realise that our marsupial mammal natives just aren’t as smart as placental mammal imported predators. Must be something to do with keeping the brain in the womb for a longer period but they cannot cope with placentals and our greenies just don’t get it.

    And that’s only one of the things they don’t get.

  16. spangled drongo March 9, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

    Good ideas, Larry. I do a bit of one-man maintenance to some of the trails and carrying light-weight tools is the secret. A sharp hand-saw with plenty of set does wonders. And with a group of volunteers it is even more fun and much can be achieved.

    One problem seems to be the difficulty in getting the young and energetic fired up about wilderness.

    If only we could develop an app that could get those jobs done by stroking a smart phone….

  17. Ian Thomson March 10, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    The ‘Eagles”, ‘Last Resort’ , off ‘Hotel California’
    “And you can see them now, on Sunday morning,
    Stand up and sing about, what it’s like up there,
    They call it Paradise- I don’t know why,
    Call some place paradise- Kiss it goodbye.”– That what you mean lol ?

    ” the Australian wilderness would have seemed much more human friendly to them with its lack of predators.”
    I have stood next to the replica of the Giant carnivorous Roo in Sydney museum. I don’t want to think about outrunning it.
    As for the marsupial lion , I would want more than a boomerang and woomera, I think.

    There is a place coming South from Ivanhoe NSW, where the land falls away to the Riverina and you can let your imagination roam out over what was the Willandra system . Imagining a lush water filled , landscape, ranging as far as the eye can see. I do know where you are coming from.

  18. Ian Thomson March 10, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    ABC headlines,
    “I’m not a Bad Person” says one of Australia’s worst pedophiles.
    US politician Praises Abbot
    Troy Buswell in Crash- in ministerial car, may end career.
    Summer of Extremes,- 150 weather records broken.
    George Pell at Abuse inquiry. Cardinal to be a witness.

    What a dodgy minefield to negotiate. I am so glad I am not working at the ABC , in search of unbiased truth and justice. ( The complaintworthy article about Ukraine seems to have been put where it belonged.)
    Well, it’s ok, the ABC is a desert of sorts , undisturbed by sentient creatures .

  19. hunter March 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    My take is that not much of Earth has been pristine irt human impact for millenia.
    Whether ancient irrigation systems in what we now call Persia and Afghanistan, or nomads over grazing or burning, or jungle dwellers using slash and burn, or American Indians running buffalo off of cliffs, etc. etc. etc. we have been shaping/impacting the biosphere for a looooong time.
    So what is wilderness? One answer could be that it is the over grown forests of America, or the dangerous overgrown bush of Australia- these are areas where people have deliberately been pulled back from doing what humans have done in prior times, or have even suppressed natural fires.
    In other words, I am not certain there is an objective definition of ‘wilderness’.

  20. cinders March 10, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    ‘Wilderness’ in Tasmania, was in 2013 added to the World Heritage List due to its pristine Outstanding Universal Value. Its World Heritage Value had been “Independently” assessed by Peter Hichcock, a former consultant for the Environment Groups to prepare and lobby for an extension to the existing WHA property in 2008, assisted by Sean Cadman, former National forest campaigner for the Wilderness Society. Their assessment was overseen by Brendan Mackey, a founding member of the Wilderness society’s wild country scientific panel and IUCN member.
    Mackey noted in his summary report that “While the IVG heritage report (Technical Report 5A) used the National and World Heritage criteria set out in the EPBC Act it does not constitute a formal heritage assessment as provided under processes established under the EPBC Act and World Heritage Convention, respectively.”
    Mackey’s report also did not assess wilderness due to no new data being available since the 1997 RFA that had already reserved 97% of the State’s high quality wilderness areas. He concluded “Forest wilderness issues warrant further consideration, especially in areas adjoining the TWWHA and the Tarkine. While the lack of data prevents further detailed comment on these issues, it will be important to assess the current extent of and potential to restore forested wilderness in areas which warrant formal assessment for World Heritage listing.”
    Instead, the 2013 extension (170,000 ha or 12% of the existing area) was rushed through as a minor modification to have it approved without any further evaluation prior to the Federal election.
    Richard Colbeck, recently flew over the extended area and his photos of this’ wilderness can be accessed at http://www.richardcolbeck.com.au/home_page_sub_articles/photographs_reveal_deceit_of_tasmanian_wilderness_world_heritage_area_extension

  21. Larry Fields March 10, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

    Earlier in this thread, I mentioned Desolation Wilderness, in California. If nobody objects to a bit of shameless self-promotion, here’s a link to a HubPages article.


    Since it’s long, semi-technical, and boring, I spiced it up with some outdoor photos. Three of them are pictures of Desolation, lifted from Wikipedia. The photo that contains yours truly was taken by James Mayeau in Mokelumne Wilderness, which is also within driving distance of Sacramento.

    Both Wilderness Areas are near Lake Tahoe. A picture of that magnificient lake is also included in the article. Tahoe really should have been a National Park, but the toothpaste is out of the tube. Now it’s overdeveloped. From the W shore, one can look across, and see a multi-story eyesore of a casino on the Nevada side.

  22. DaveW March 11, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Larry – I was once briefly lost in the Desolation Wilderness – it is easy to loose a trail across bare granite – but also easy to see long distances and I eventually spotted a cairn and found the trail. It is a beautiful place.

    I see two themes in the comments that I think deserve comment.

    First, there is clearly some political fight going on about wilderness designations with which I’m out of touch with (I’m just back after a decade overseas). I wasn’t trying to offer a political definition of wilderness, just using its traditional definition to point out that areas that have been altered by human controls are not true wilderness – they are human-induced dysclimaxes that can be expected to undergo drastic change when human controls (e.g. fire suppression) are removed. The changes may result in a more diverse and self-supporting system in the long run, but that could be wishful thinking. I think that in this view, hunter (2:03 pm comment, 1st paragraph) and I are in agreement.

    Second, I see a difference between people living in nature and people controlling nature. I would accept that it could be argued that humans controlled much of Australia with the firestick (and more recently fire suppression) for the last 40-50,000 years. That seems to be the premise of a book I saw last night “The Biggest Estate on Earth” (Bill Gammage Allen & Unwin 2011). American Indians also burned to promote wildlife in the grasslands and woodlands. However, I don’t think the fire sticks controlled much of the resulting landscape and the people were still surrounded by a lot of what we would consider wilderness.

    Having an effect on the landscape is not the same as controlling it. Beaver are sometimes known as ‘Meadow Killers’ – they dam streams, flood meadows, drown trees and then cut down the desirable species for as far from the shore of their ponds as the predators will let them. Yet I’ve never heard anyone demand that a wilderness in North America be free of beavers (a lot of graziers would like to see them exterminated though).

  23. spangled drongo March 11, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    Interesting thoughts on wilderness clothing, Larry. Amazing how the religious disdain cotton for the probably equally CO2 emitting synthetics.

    Some of the best gear in Australia for the bush that our ancestors wore and which is no longer available was the Jackie Howe woollen [material, not knit] vest.

    Often, that was all that was worn up top by workers and even footballers [in team colours].

    It was an acquired taste because woollen material against your skin takes a bit of getting used to but for a life of periodic extreme exertion interspersed by calmer periods, in varying weather conditions, it was very functional.

    As an under-vest in cooler conditions it was also effective.

    When they stopped making them here about 20 years ago almost no one wore them but I did and I made my own but these days you can’t even get the material. Although I don’t doubt that genuine flannel is still used in your latitudes.

  24. David Jefford Ward (aka Green Davey) March 11, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    I enjoy Simon Schama’s writing. In his book Landscape & Memory, he comments on the concept of wilderness, mentioning the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

    Schama says that the presumption was that wilderness was out there somewhere, awaiting discovery, and that it ‘would be the antidote for the poisons of the industrial society.’ He adds ‘But of course the healing wilderness was as much the product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden.’

    He mentions Yosemite, where the parking lot is almost as big as the park, and ‘there are bears rooting among the McDonald’s cartons.’

    Schama also notes that ‘The brilliant meadow-floor which suggested to its first eulogists a pristine Eden was in fact the result of regular fire-clearances by its Ahwahneechee Indian occupants’. These Indians had been expelled, and, according to Schama, ‘were carefully and forcibly edited out of the idyll.’

    Sounds rather familiar. Those who eagerly mimic the American wildernists, should read Simon Schama. He is a bit deeper than ‘deep ecology’.

  25. DaveW March 12, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

    Green Davey – I was not impressed with Simon Schama’s ‘Citizen..”, but he was undoubtedly correct about the editing out of the the Ahwahneechhe.

    Spangled Drongo – the Virginia Opossum has been expanding its range in North America in spite of the most dense possible resistance from ‘placental mammals’ (placental vs marsupial is a false dichotomy – both have placenta, it is more how to do with how long the offspring are retained in utero). Similarly, echidnas and platypuses managed to survive in competition with their ‘superior’ marsupial cousins and the few placentals present when Europeans got here (and even more placentals that went extinct before). When a predator is chasing an expectant mother, is it more awkward to carry ones young is a pouch or in a uterus? I think you are confounding an advantage that an invader has, irrespective of its evolutionary history, with a taxonomic category.

  26. DaverW March 12, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Dear Drongo,

    “When our first people arrived after trekking for probably many lifetimes through the wilds of Africa and Asia, the Australian wilderness would have seemed much more human friendly to them with its lack of predators”

    When I first read this I thought ‘well how about snakes?’, but realized that Australia’s first people would have experienced similar snakes in Africa and Asia.

    On further research, though, I found that even if we accept the most conservative estimate of early invasion (40,000 ybp). the ancestors of all or some of the aboriginals would have encountered lots of large predators: Geyornis (300 kg predatory birds), giant monitor lizards (7m long), large terrestrial crocodiles, marsupial lions and the ‘Tasmanian’ Tigre (probably still resident on the mainland until after Cook).


  27. spangled drongo March 13, 2014 at 11:28 am #

    Dave, I think the Virginia Opossum evolved alongside its placental predators. And the ability to climb has allowed possums to outsmart most things. Even here the possum isn’t too troubled by feral canids and felines.

    But after 25 years of daily data logging wildlife and a near lifetime of trapping feral canids, I know the latter are so far ahead of our ground dwelling marsupial natives in their general sensing and intelligence that much of our remnant wildlife that are today in small numbers are heading for extinction. I have witnessed more than one colony of rock wallabies, red-legged pademelons etc simply die out because they were incapable of raising any young. By carrying often more than one generation of young in the pouch they cast the biggest very quickly when they are forced to negotiate very difficult terrain and that’s all it takes to extinguish the breed.

    This isn’t like re-introducing wolves into Yellowstone.

    Kangaroos will always survive and thrive but smaller, specialised wallabies that live in small colonies in specific areas can be easily extinguished as can koalas, echidnas, bandicoots, bilbies down to the small stuff.

    In our world heritage areas such as Fraser Island where these “native” canid apex predators have been given free reign there is virtually nothing left of the natives and the “native” predators are forced to rely on the offal from fishermen to survive.

    The fact that these “natives” then prevent us from eradicating the rest of the “non-native” feral predators from our declared wilderness reserves is an even bigger problem.

    We need to improve our thinking.

  28. Larry Fields March 13, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Speaking of the devil, the Opossum used to be limited to the Eastern part of the USA. A few of the beasties probably hitched a ride across the deserts and Rocky Mtns. And now, they’re doing quite well in California.

    A special adaptation of the Opossum is “playing possum.” When faced with a predator that they can’t outrun or outclimb, they faint, and appear to be dead. They also secrete a realy stinky substance, which makes their bodies smell so rotten that many would-be predators say to themselves: I’m hungry, but I’m not desperate enough to take the risk of noshing on this rotten corpse.

    Opossums also have a high degree of immunity to N American snake venoms. However I’m not sure about how resistant Opossums are to Mojave Green Rattlers, the most venomous snakes in N America.

    In these two respects, are Australian Possums similar to their American cousins?

  29. Robert March 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    Larry, the Australian possum gets by on sheer effrontery. This includes having sex at peak hour right outside Sydney’s Hyde Park station. They do not sleep in your roof by day: they go there to have sex, jump around and brawl. The trick is to encourage a big goanna or python to live in the roof. The sliding and scratching noises, and the occasional carrion dinner reeking through the plaster ceiling, are infinitely preferable to having possums up there. (You attract goannas with egg shells and a friendly manner.)

    So, that’s your Australian possum: a brawler, and glutton and a sex maniac. It’s not at all a good idea to give it a Health Services Union Credit Card.

  30. spangled drongo March 13, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    DaveW, I suspect that even with some of our big beasties of 40,000 y ago the natives here were likely pussycats as compared to Africa/Asia.

    Larry, as Robert says, some possums here are a bit of a worry. Particularly the common ringtail. Our mountain brushtail is much milder mannered as are similar various gliders and rarer as a result.

  31. DaveW March 13, 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Larry – I grew up on Virginia opossums, so the Australian ‘possums’ were a revelation. They look just like real mammals and lack the ‘horror-film mutant rat’ look of Didelphis virginiana. They don’t play dead either – some pickies of two common Brisbane species at http://homebuggarden.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/one-reason-for-moving-home-bug-garden.html

    The name, Trichosurus vulpecula, of the Brush-tailed Possum refers to its bushy tail and fox-like look, but its ‘hands’ are the amazing part of its anatomy (see picture at link). This dexterity is better captured in Pseudocheirus peregrinus, the Ringtail Possum (placed in a separate family), meaning Wandering False-hand (assuming my Latin is working). There is nothing primitive looking about these possums – they are modern animals – and as Robert notes, quite able to take advantage of people.

    Drongo – I suppose we will never know if the Marsupial Lion was as terrifying as the Lion or Leopard, but I’ve been chased off trails by Cassowaries, so a 300 kg predatory bird would probably reduce me to an academic.

    Can’t argue with your observations on dingos and wallabies, though. Actually, I just read about a paper (unfortunately based on a model) that tried to reconcile the lack of known ancient aboriginal hearths with the bones of the megafauna with the sudden demise of said megafauna with the arrival of the aborigines. Your observation of shed young would be consistent with their model (see “The Lost Giants of Tasmania”. Australasian Science 29 (9): 14–17) “But a recent study by Barry Brook of the University
    of Adelaide and Chris Johnson neatly provides a solution to both of these mega-riddles. Using a demographic population model that allows for variable human and megafaunal densities, hunting efficiencies and harvesting strategies, they found that the selective unting of just one or two juvenile megafauna per 10 people each year would be sufficient to exterminate such slow-breeding species within a few centuries.”


  32. spangled drongo March 13, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    DaveW, thanks for that. I’ll just have to learn to think more like a model.

    BTW, the Sage Grouse and Prairie Chicken are being used at the moment by the Wildlife Guardians to try and close down the FF industry:


  33. Debbie March 14, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    Just spotted this one:

    “A study has found killing dingoes and wild dogs leads to more foxes and less habitat for small native animals.

    The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, says that by controlling Australia’s apex predator, the environment is damaged.

    Mike Letnic, from the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, says dingoes help to control both fox and kangaroo populations, keeping the landscape more diverse. . .

  34. spangled drongo March 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    Debbie, I understand that test was carried out by throwing a few foxes into an animal-proof fenced paddock occupied by many dingoes and the many dingoes killed the few foxes.

    The test I read about didn’t even seem to have trees or much cover and was completely new and unestablished country to the foxes.

    In the real world foxes and cats play dogs and dingoes off a break.

    Dingoes are natural scavengers and poor hunters but big packs [which they often congregate in] are capable of doing a lot of rapid pleasure killing, which I have witnessed, where there is almost no consumption. IOW, a large pack will come to an area where there is a localised colony of unique wildlife and wipe it out overnight and move on.

    The simple test to tell whether dingoes are beneficial to our wildlife is to compare two islands: Tasmania [where dingoes never got] and Fraser Island where there are dingoes.

    Tassie has arguably the most diverse wildlife in Australia and Fraser has virtually nothing left after a failed experiment with dingoes for the last 40 years.

    The dingo is the same DNA as the pariah dog of Asia and how science can possibly conclude that our native wildlife need the dingo is suspect logic.

    They would probably argue that Custer needed Indians too.

  35. Debbie March 14, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    No argument from me SD
    I am instead amused by this article.
    Wild dogs (and of course dingoes and/or foxes) are MORE LIKELY to wipe out wildlife than any chance of their presence keeping each other’s numbers manageable.
    The logic (and perhaps even the point of the study?) is indeed suspect.
    I’m also amused by the reference to kangaroos being a threat to smaller mammals.
    I noted another story today about a carpet python eating a pet dog which had a link to this story:

  36. Robert March 14, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    The “study” was performed by something called the “Centre for Ecosystem Science”.

    That name is pure Turney, if you know what I mean. Actually, I’ll explain what I mean. I mean it’s utterly creepy.

  37. spangled drongo March 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    Debbie and Robert,

    This paper, “Clear as Mud: A critical review of evidence for the ecological roles of Australian dingoes”, while I think it is a little too generous towards the “creeping crack of bias” on the dingo as a controller of the ecology, is much more sceptical, rational and realistic:


  38. Larry Fields March 14, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    It’s time for my stooopid question of the day. Australia has not had very good luck with unintentionally introduced species, like kitty cats.

    On the other hand, the wild cats in N American deserts are mainly the big ones — like Cougars, and the even larger Jaguars further South. Why can’t small feral cats gain a foothold? Because they all get killed by Coyotes.

    We Americans have slightly smaller dingo look-alikes; they’re called Carolina Dogs. CDs can only compete with Coyotes in our semitropical SE states.

    Both Coyotes and Dingoes prey on sheep. I don’t know which of these canids would be the bigger headache for sheep ranchers.

    What about introducing Rabies-free Coyotes into desert areas in mainland Australia? Being active and fast-running hunters, Coyotes would certainly solve the feral cat problem.

    Dave W, do you think that introducing Coyotes would increase or decrease the feral death toll on native species in Australia?

  39. Johnathan Wilkes March 14, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    Hunters, in general fast-running or not will go for the easiest prey.

    I’m afraid coyotes being smart, would also go for the more defenseless natives.
    Another introduced predator we don’t need.
    Cane toad anyone?

  40. spangled drongo March 14, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    Larry, we ain’t short of apex predators.

    We have every breed of feral dog coming out our ears and red foxes by the million.

    Our problem is that with the dingo declared as a “native” it is protected in our gazetted wildlife reserves which then stops us controlling all the other feral predators.

    We have a poison called 1080 [sodium fluoroacetate] which occurs naturally in the environment and from which our natives are somewhat immune so that you can put out 1080 baits in the right dosage and kill ferals without hurting carnivorous natives.

    But we aren’t allowed to do this in our official animal reserves because it will kill the dingo and the dingo is protected.

    And with each new national park is another area where the natives can’t be protected

    This has signed a long term death warrant for our ground dwelling natives.

    What does this sort of logic remind you of?

    What we should do is import some of your Rabies INFECTED coyotes and then officials might be made to get off their arse and start removing all canids from these areas.

    Pretty drastic, I know, but I think it could be a better solution in the long term.

  41. Debbie March 15, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    Foxes and cats are canny, cunning creatures.
    They are not easy prey for dingo or wild dogs in the ‘wilderness’.
    The natives are the losers.
    The basic assumption in this study is flawed.
    I guess once the natives are wiped out and the dingoes/wild dogs are hungry enough (and unable to prey on domestic stock) they might go after the foxes and cats?

  42. DaveW March 15, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    Hi Larry – I’m against introducing vertebrates anywhere unless it is a re-introduction of an extirpated population or a carefully controlled introduction (e.g. to an island) for conservation purposes. I can’t think of a vertebrate introduction that hasn’t been a disaster.

    At the time they were described as a species by Thomas Say in 1823, coyotes were restricted to the SW US – Mexico- Panama. Since then they have spread pretty much across the continent on their own, aided by our knocking off their major predators/competitors (wolves, cougars) and creating more open habitats. They thrive even in cites on pets, rats and mice and garbage.

    Coyotes are pretty effective predators of smaller vertebrate predators like feral cats, bobcats and foxes. In Alberta where coyotes are invasive the Red Fox is pretty much restricted to living around farm houses where they are protected from coyote predation (and they pay us back by eating our chickens).

    The Dingos that I have seen are good sized dogs – coyotes may look bigger, but that’s the long hair. The northern populations get to over 30 kg, but in Australia they would probably be more like the southern populations, around 20 kg. That’s pretty much the size range given for dingos too, so I don’t think the coyote would be an effective predator of dingos. They might even breed with them – and that would be an out-and-out disaster.

    Drongo – thanks for the link to the ‘Clear as Mud’ paper. Looks like interesting reading.

    I think I’ll stir the pot a bit. Here’s a SMH article on some recent research showing that feral cats can help protect native mammals through controlling rats. On islands at least, rats are far more of a disaster than the larger ferals we so love to hate:



  43. Debbie March 15, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    I am no fan of rats!
    But, like foxes and cats, they too are canny, cunning creatures and not easy prey for other predators.
    The cats and foxes will certainly hunt them. . . but not necessarily in preference to the easier and probably tastier targets. So in the ‘wilderness’ the losers would inevitably be those easier tasty targets.
    IMHO the concept is flawed for the same reason as the dingo study.
    The feral cats may indeed help SOME(!) mammals. . . but the bottom line is not a good story re feral cats anymore or less than it is re rats.

    More on the dingo study here.

    I’m still amused that wallabies and kangaroos are targeted as a problem by this study:

    “Foxes ate large amounts of small mammals, while kangaroos and wallabies destroyed vegetation which smaller marsupials, mice, bandicoots and native rodents live in.”

    Are we to assume that dingoes and wild dogs don’t hunt “smaller marsupials, mice, bandicoots and native rodents” before or after they have hunted down foxes, wallabies and kangaroos?


    If we’re talking about protecting ‘wilderness’ and protecting the natural fauna and flora therein. . .does anyone else think that perhaps these people may have somewhat lost the plot somewhere?

  44. spangled drongo March 15, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    Debbie, you are way ahead of most people on this dingo and feral problem.

    Thanks for that link. I had to leave a comment there for the benefit of Dr Letnic.

    These guys need to get out more and just see what’s going on in the real world.

    I’ve been involved with dingo control all my life and the place where they did the least harm was in the cattle industry where they would only kill cattle when they were weakened by severe drought and they would take calves which would allow the mothers to survive.

    In sheep country it was always netting and electric fencing but still they would get through and cause mayhem.

    Now, I only farm wildlife and I have managed, over the years to buy up all the land between two nat parks but we can’t control the dingo in national parks and they [along with dogs, foxes, cats, pigs etc.] have open slather.

    The previous Labor state govt was intending to have gazetted national reserves extending all over the state. Thank God they were stopped.

    At least the farmers are protecting the wildlife which is more than the govt is doing.

    When you see how screwed in the head some of these enviro scientists are it’s not hard to understand the errors in the science of AGW.

    When Richard Feynman said: science is the belief in the ignorance of experts, he was being generous.

  45. DaveW March 15, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    Hi Debbie – I think the main conclusion of the study (I did read the paper last year, but can’t find it now and have to go on the newspaper article) is that you can’t just kill off the cats, you have to do the rats too. So, in this case we seem to have a rational scientist or two making useful recommendations.

    The predator-hugger problem is pervasive and in my opinion (NB – I haven’t had a humble opinion in years) derives directly from the corruption of the media and educational system by ‘environmentalist’ cant. The resulting bias is too deeply embedded to be driven out by tertiary education; and besides, many of the professors are also corrupted. Even I like watching Attenborough’s programs in spite of their distorted subliminal messages.

    For example, the myth that large predators won’t eat people is insanely abstracted from reality, but pervasive in North America where wolves, coyotes and cougars have all killed and eaten people when they felt like it. True, when predators are rare and the first response is to grab a gun when you see one, predators will tend to leave people alone, but now that predator populations and human/predator interactions are increasing it is moronic to believe you have some kind of immunity. David Baron’s book ‘The Beast in the Garden’ is a good read about recent cougar-human interactions and there are a number of studies showing that even coyotes will take a bite out of you once they associate people with food.

    People even think bears aren’t really dangerous, in spite of numerous records of Black Bears hunting people and Grizzlies regularly taking people for dinner. Even Polar Bears are now thought of as cute and cuddly victims of human oppression. A couple of years ago, one infamous bear-hugger and his girl friend were eaten by a Grizzly in Alaska. I feel a bit sorry for the brain-washed girl friend, but the bear-hugger’s fate was inevitable.

    I know a professor whose daughter was killed by a cougar and who seems to think her daughter would much rather have been killed than to have had to kill the cougar in self-defence. I think this attitude is very sad and equivalent to drinking the kook-aid, but it is the logical outcome of accepting the environmentalist religion.

  46. Robert March 15, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    There are often situations where you have to think twice about removing a single feral predator. The removal of cats from Macquarie Island was a bit of disaster because of other ferals remaining. Where I live, I would be hesitant to get rid of a fox or even dingo because there are rabbits just on the other side of our valley. I’d like to get rid of them, but I’d hesitate. I suppose if cats had wiped out a lot of reptiles on an island you might then need the cats to perform the function of the reptiles, but I’ve got plenty of good goannas and snakes. Cats may have a function of sorts in my region, but I seriously doubt it. I’d probably kill one if I got the chance.

    The biggest problem in forest fringe areas like mine is the feral dog, not the dingo or fox. Further out in the valley, in grazing country, it’s likely a different story. Swamp wallabies are in abundance here because they are agile and can use the lantana for protection, but pity help most other animals. When the packs go quiet around here, as lately, I often worry it’s because they’ve hunted the place out. The size of the brutes in country where NPs border livestock land is a real worry. If a case can be made for feral dogs (as distinct from foxes and dingoes) I’d be amazed.

    I don’t believe in pristine or stable “systems” of any sort. The bush is a volatile mess that needs to be managed for fire and vermin, but you can still love it and look after it a bit. I say start with cool burns and the killing of feral dogs.

  47. spangled drongo March 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    Owls, nightjars, kookaburras, frogmouths, boobooks, butcherbirds, all raptors, snakes etc. do a great job on feral rodent plagues if you look after them and don’t poison them by mistake.

    It’s great to see an irruption of letter-winged kites ripping into a mouse plague when the house cats have given up.

    Recently I watched a butcherbird hanging several mice it had killed on sharp sticks in a tree for future consumption. And I suddenly realised that’s why it is so called.

    My Rattus rattus have disappeared lately with the fruiting of my pecan nut tree. They were feeding on the nuts but the sooty owl has been screaming at night lately so it or something else has got them.

    Now the white cockatoos, custard-heads and the king parrots are eating the nuts instead. ☺

  48. Robert March 15, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    SD, truly amazing yarn about your butcher bird.

  49. Debbie March 15, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    Thanks Dave,
    Of course cats AND(!) rats are a problem for native fauna and of course they BOTH need to be managed if we are serious about protecting ‘wilderness’ and the native fauna and flora that resides there.
    IMHO the conclusions in these studies are flawed because of an underlying assumption that these predators and ferals could be helping to protect the native wildlife by keeping each other in check.
    As SD points out. . .if you live anywhere in Australia where all these variables are in operation. . .it simply doesn’t work that way! The losers are inevitably the natives.
    And yes Robert. . .those feral dogs in National parks are causing real problems. . .for all the native wildlife, the smaller ferals like cats and rats (which would be OK in and of itself) and domestic stock. . .they are also cross breeding with dingoes. . .some of them are HUGE!
    They are a menace. . .no question. . .and they are increasingly using National parks as their habitat.
    I love the interaction between all the birds here too SD
    IMHO they are far smarter than environmental scientists seem to realise.
    The butcher birds have a bit of a bad reputation but they have a beautiful carol and other birds here are far, far more tolerant of them than they are of birds like hawks, crows and eagles.
    We have masses of water birds here too (because of that evil irrigation) and it’s interesting to watch them interact with the more common species like parrots and magpies and kookaburras.

  50. DaveW March 15, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Here’s a general question: Suppose there were no feral predators in Australia, no dingos and other wild dogs, no monstrous moggies, no foxes? What would you all think about thylacines, devils, quolls in national parks?

    I ask the question because I’ve been rereading Robert Paddle’s excellent book “The Last Tasmanian Tiger” and it make me wonder.

  51. spangled drongo March 15, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

    I have seen a couple of situations like that where people have been able to exclude feral apex ground-dwelling predators [still aerial ones]. In the Bunya Mts they have a moratorium on dogs and have been able to keep foxes and dingoes under some control and the marsupial numbers are quite impressive. Rednecked wallabies [mainly, no roos as it’s mountain country] lazing around the houses, streets and parks. Very diverse wildlife but no apparent problems.

    I also used to work on a sheep station that was over a million acres, with 137 miles of dog netting and electric fencing around the perimeter. It was mainly thick mulga scrub and some paddocks were over 300,000 acres. After a reasonably clean muster we would get say 10,000 sheep and 25,000 roos in the bottom corner. Mulga is very drought-proof country and we never did anything about the roos because the sheep were fat even if it didn’t rain but those roo numbers were out of control.

    I’ve never seen dogs/dingoes control plague numbers of roos to any extent. Not like the way a pack will wipe out a colony of isolated wallabies. I doubt if thylacines would have either. I think they just thin out in dry times. The problem was, on this property, there was always fodder in the mulga leaves and after a while the roos would have to have been shot out.

    We didn’t do it because they weren’t a problem and most of the time they weren’t visible.

    Huge areas of Australia didn’t have roos all year round or dingoes at all, before white settlement because there was no permanent water.

    Dingoes didn’t get into the channel country until around the time of WW2. It was all unfenced sheep country till then. There were no thylacines so there were no apex predators in that notw.

    But thylacines or devils would be far less destructive than dogs/dingoes/foxes. The thylacines in Tas when the whites arrived were mostly killed by domestic dogs from what I’ve read.

  52. Larry Fields March 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    Comment from: DaveW March 15th, 2014 at 11:19 am 
”People even think bears aren’t really dangerous, in spite of numerous records of Black Bears hunting people and Grizzlies regularly taking people for dinner.”

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Wilderness Areas. Surprise, surprise! I have never even seen a Black Bear there DURING THE DAY. However I have seen Black Bears in the crowded, very un-wildernessy part of Yosemite. They’re the vanguard of a new subspecies, Ursus Garbagiensis.

    My experience jibes with what I’ve read. Unlike Grizzlies, Black Bears are smart and cautious. A typical Black Bear response to seeing a human IN A WILDERNESS AREA is:

    Who are these strange 2-legged creatures? Until I get more info, I’m keeping my distance!

    I feel very Bear-safe on all of my local day-hikes. However I agree with the conventional wisdom about protective mama Bears. If you see a Bear cub on a day-hike, turn around immediately, and make an orderly retreat.

    The larger and more aggressive Grizzly Bears are a different ball of wax. Notwithstanding California’s state flag, we don’t have any in the wild. Grizzlies need huge territories in order to survive, and our state is too fragmented for that. Our Grizzlies have been locally extinct since 1920 or so.

    It’s a similar story in most of the contiguous USA. The main exceptions are parts of Montana, Wyoming, and perhaps Idaho. If you’re backpacking in Yellowstone NP, you may feel safer ‘packing heat’. And yes, it’s legal there.

    Cougars are a much bigger concern. Here’s the opening ‘hook’ paragraph and the link to an article that I wrote on the subject at HubPages.

    “Back in the early 2000s, I was hiking with friends on the Clementine loop in Northern California’s Gold Country, near Auburn. During a rest stop, we met a woman who was mountain-biking alone. In my inimitably charming way, I expressed concern for her safety. I told her that earlier in the day, we had seen a mountain lion who was sporting a blue T-shirt. She didn’t think that Wet Blanket Larry’s tall tale was the least bit funny. Nevertheless it underscores the most important principles of personal safety in cougar country.”


  53. DaveW March 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    Hi Larry – I’ve encountered Black Bear during the day. One cherished memory is rounding a corner on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and running into a large Black Bear. We both stopped, took a long look at one another and bolted in opposite directions. Another is a week long canoe trip in Algonquin Provincial Park. After pulling ashore to camp, out wandered a black bear cub and then mama. Throwing hunks of wood, banging pans, puffing out our chest were no matter and 4 young male Homo sapiens were soon back in their canoes well off shore with campfire and dinner a fond memory.

    Those stories fit the general Black Bear meme, along with my nighttime experiences with Black Bear raiding campsites in several national parks (even in the Yosemite back country behind Hetch Hetchy), but it isn’t that simple. Most fatal attacks on people by Black Bears are the result of male bears in hunting mode. See this for a synopsis and Herrero’s papers are well worth a read:


    Black Bears are large enough to eat you if they feel like it and you can’t scare them off.

  54. Larry Fields March 17, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Comment from: DaveW March 16th, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    “Black Bears are large enough to eat you if they feel like it and you can’t scare them off.”

    Many years ago, a Black Bear got too close for comfort. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear the air going in and out of his nostrils. He was after our food, and was probably not motivated by a craving for human-burgers. Could I have mistaken a Bigfoot for a Black Bear? Yes, that’s theoretically possible, but unlikely.

    This was AT NIGHT in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, in Nth California. One of my back-packing companions yelled at him as loudly as possible. Then I could hear the Black Bear scurrying off. Yes, my companion scared off the big, bad Black Bear! The BB left us alone for the rest of the night. It’s possible that your similar efforts were unsuccessful, because your command of specialized Anglo-Saxon vocabulary was not equal to the task. 🙂

    “Those stories fit the general Black Bear meme, along with my nighttime experiences with Black Bear raiding campsites in several national parks (even in the Yosemite back country behind Hetch Hetchy), but it isn’t that simple.”

    I’ve only been to the Yosemite back-country twice. The first visit, many years ago, was a weekend peak bagging trip — Mounts Lyell and McClure — starting form Tuolumne Meadows. The second visit to the Yosemite backcountry was some 25 years later. From the Owens Valley side, we back-packed in to Peeler Lake, which is near the W boundary of Yosemite. Surprise, surprise! No Black Bears on either trip.

    The Yosemite back-country is not my favorite place for a wilderness experience. It’s too crowded.

    I’ve never been hiking in the Eastern part of the US. My educated guess is that Wilderness Areas there are more heavily used than most of the ones in California. Use Factor #1: large population centers (as in California), and nearby small towns (whose residents do not bear-proof their garbage cans). Use Factor #2: wimpier uphill stretches on trails in the molehills that Easterners call mountains.

    If I’m right about the relative usages, this has given the local Black Bears more opportunities to habituate to humans, and to overcome the natural reluctance to pursuing the yummy-smelling food items in the backpacks that people carry.

    “Most fatal attacks on people by Black Bears are the result of male bears in hunting mode.”

    I have no doubt that headline-grabbing incidents of this kind have happened. The $64 question is: How often? How big is the risk for a typical backpacker in one of the less-crowded Wilderness Areas in California?

    Pitbulls have received similar bad press. Some of it is accurate. And some of it is BS, in which the reporter did not have a clue about the breed of the dog involved in the attack. Oh yes, it must have been a Pitbull. /sarc

    In my limited experience, PBs are mostly nice to people. In my not-so-humble opinion, Breed Specific Legislation is as much an over-reaction, as the irrational fear of Black Bears in California’s less-crowded Wilderness Areas. Here’s an old joke that puts things into perspective.

    You’re hiking in Yellowstone, and you see bear scat on the trail.
    Q: Is it Black Bear scat, or is it Grizzly Bear scat?
    A: Grizzly Bear scat contains bear bells, and smells like pepper spray.

    Here’s a link to two amazing (and probably true) bear stories I heard that I wrote up at HubPages, an online community of writers.

  55. DaveW March 18, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    Hi Larry – the most dangerous thing most hikers do is drive to and fro the trailhead. Driving is much more likely to kill you than a back country predator, but it is a mistake to consider them harmless. Many of the Black Bear attacks recorded are in remote areas. One in particular that I remember was a guy with a cabin and an outhouse who got taken on the way to the loo. Canadian newspapers often report Black Bear attacks in the spring. Put together a hungry bear coming out of hibernation together with a bit of testosterone and an incautious human and you have a gripping story.

    We seem to have a real logical disconnect with mammalian predators. I would bet you’d be far more afraid of a Saltwater Crocodile or Taipan than a Black Bear or a Dingo. Our ancestors viewed large predators as competitors and threats. We seem to view them as entertainment provided by nature. I think that is why Spangled Drongo and others are having problems getting Dingos culled.

  56. Larry Fields March 18, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    Hi Dave,
    You’re right about the Saltwater Crocs. Being taken by one of these beasties would not be a fun way to go. For any hiking in NT or in the far Nth of Qld, I’d want the company of someone with local experience.

    I’ve seen Rattlesnakes on hikes. I respect them, but am not afraid of them. Since Australia is the poisonous snake capital of the world, I’d be very hesitant to walk through tall grass there.

    And as I mentioned earlier, I’m well prepared for Drop Bear attacks in Eucalypt forests. 🙂

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