BEARLY A CONCERN: Black bears are too cute to do much harm. Courtesy Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

If you’re one of those rugged hunterly types from Greenbrier or Pangburn, you can skip this part. There’s nothing here you don’t already know. But for soft-soled city slickers from urban locales, woodland encounters with bears, snakes and other wild creatures can be daunting. Should we venture out on rivers and trails, or is it better to stick to swimming pools and sidewalks?   

Experts from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission say not to sweat it. They offered up some reassuring advice about coexisting with some of Arkansas’s most formidable residents. So, which animals are truly dangerous and which ones should we not worry about too much? Hint: It’s not what you’d think.

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The Black Bear

Arkansas’s largest predator can weigh up to 600 pounds and stand 6 feet tall. But Kirsten Bartlow, watchable wildlife coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, points out that a black bear’s favorite hobby (after eating and sleeping) is avoiding human beings. “In this part of the United States we have black bears and they’re just not known for being aggressive creatures,” said Bartlow. “They’d really like as little to do with us as possible.” 

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In the unlikely event you find yourself face-to-face with a bear (or another Arkansas predator like a bobcat, coyote or cougar), here’s what to do:

Don’t feed them. Keep food in bear-proof containers or hung in trees so animals aren’t attracted to your campsite.

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Make lots of noise. This works as both a deterrent and a defense in acute emergency wildlife encounters. 

Make yourself seem as large as possible by standing at your full height and raising your arms above your head or out to the side. Think large thoughts.

Stay put. Prey runs, you shouldn’t.

Courtesy Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
SURPRISE!: This ringneck is just as nonplussed to see you as you are to see it.

Snakes 

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“I guess what bothers me is the surprise factor,” said Trey Reid, assistant chief of communications for Game and Fish. “You’re hiking down a path or paddling a river and you look up and all of a sudden there’s a snake in close proximity. That can be a little unnerving.” 

Of the 36 different types of snakes living in Arkansas, only six are venomous: the copperhead, the cottonmouth or water moccasin, the western diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake, the western pygmy rattlesnake (which is not as cute as it sounds, btw) and the Texas coral snake. You can find the local bible of snake identification in the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s “Pocket Guide to Snakes.” But if you’re looking for a hard and fast rule it’s this: If you’re close enough to see the snake’s pupils or pattern … you’re too close.  

“If you’re close enough to mess with the snake, it’s close enough to mess with you,” Bartlow said. 

In the rare event that you find yourself on the receiving end of a pair of snake fangs, the solution is simple: Go to a hospital. Quickly. There’s no need to suck out the poison, rig up a tourniquet or cut around the bite. In fact, doing any of these things will probably only make the situation worse.

Ticks and Mosquitos

As you see, fear of Arkansas’s predators and venomous snakes is largely unwarranted. Arkansas’s blood-sucking insects, though? They are an entirely different story.

“When people ask me, ‘What are you most scared of in the woods?’ Or, ‘What animal are you scared of?’ It’s ticks,” Bartlow said. 

And Bartlow’s right to be cautious. Tick-borne diseases include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease, Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness and Alpha-Gal, a tick-borne illness that results in victims developing an allergy to beef, mutton, pork and all other meats that come from mammals.

Mosquitos spread illnesses like the West Nile virus and the Zika virus, both of which are rare but can be serious. 

So if you’re going to be out in grass, wooded areas or places with lots of leaf litter on the ground, wear boots with your pants legs tucked in, Reid advises. Wear long sleeves and treat your gear with the insect repellent permethrin.

For a chemical-free solution, embrace nature’s own pest control, Bartlow said. “You know, some people don’t want opossums in their yards, but opossums will eat lots of ticks. And bats can be a real pain because maybe sometimes they end up getting behind your shutters on your house and are leaving droppings, but they’re eating just thousands of mosquitoes throughout the summer.”