Cottonmouth on the Bell Slough Water Trail near Mayflower. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

I really hate to admit this, but nature intimidates me. I know. I’m one of those. My main fear as a city slicker? Animal encounters.

I spoke with experts from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, as well as from the Audubon Society of Arkansas, to learn more about coexisting with some of Arkansas’s most formidable residents. Learn who to avoid, who is really dangerous, and who just wants to be left alone. Hint: it’s not who you’d think.

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Black bears

When I think of animal encounters my mind jumps straight to Arkansas’ largest predator – the black bear. And can you blame me? With adult males weighing in anywhere from 100 to 600 pounds and standing up to 6 feet tall, these spacious omnivores are hard to miss. Or so you’d think.

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But Kirsten Barlow, 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,” Barlow said. “They’d really like as little to do with us as possible.”

Black bears were once so plentiful in Arkansas that the Natural State was nicknamed “the Bear State” until habitat destruction and over-hunting thinned ursine numbers to near-extinction. Arkansas rescued its bear population from the brink thanks largely to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who reintroduced 254 black bears to the Ozark and the Ouachita mountains between 1958 and 1968. Thanks to these restoration efforts there are now an estimated 3,000 – 6,000 black bears in the state today.

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“We do have a robust black bear population in Arkansas, primarily in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas,” said Trey Reid, Assistant Chief of Communications for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “Although we also have bears in the Lower White River Basin and they’re expanding their range into parts of Southern Arkansas as well.”

Like Barlow, Reid emphasized that bear encounters, especially dicey ones, are the exception rather than the rule. “Human encounters that are negative, so to speak, with bears are extremely uncommon and extremely rare,” said Reid. “They are fairly reclusive animals. Bears have just an incredible sense of smell and so when they detect human scent or things associated with humans … they are typically going to avoid us.”

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Peekaboo.

In the excessively unlikely event that you do find yourself face-to-face with a bear or another large predator during your hike or camping trip, here are a few tips for handling the situation safely and gracefully. 

Don’t feed them: When it comes to maintaining safe and healthy boundaries with black bears and other animals one of the most important things you can do is to keep your food to yourself.

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“The number one thing to do is not to leave food out,” Reid said. “Whether we’re talking about raccoons storming your campsite for a handout or something as large as a bear … the main thing is just don’t provide an incentive, especially an incentive of food for those animals to show up in the first place.”

As you camp, hike or bird in the Arkansas wilderness, pack food away in a locked cooler or a bear-proof container. Primitive campers should bag food and hang it from trees. 

Make noise: While you’re hiking, walking, or fishing, talk out loud. Sing. Whistle. This will alert local predators like bears, cougars, bobcats and coyotes that you’re around and will give them a chance to move on before you even know they are there. If a bear happens upon your campsite, yell or bang pots and pans together to frighten your new ursine friend away from your weenie roast.

Stand tall: If you happen upon a bear or a bear happens upon you, don’t crouch or cower. 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.

Do. Not. Run.: Prey runs, you shouldn’t. Because I hate to break it to you, speedy, but there is very little chance that you can outpace Ursus americanus. The average adult black bear can run 30 mph, or about the speed of a champion Olympic sprinter.

Keep your distance: This should go without saying, but if you see a bear, leave it alone. Don’t try to approach or touch it.

Snakes

Snakes are an important part of our ecosystem. They eat rodents and insects that plague farmers and citizens alike. They also give me a major case of the heebie-jeebies. And I know that I’m not alone in the feeling.

“I guess what bothers me is the surprise factor,” Reid said. “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.”

But that doesn’t mean that snakes, even venomous ones, are to be feared. “Most often any kind of snake bite is going to be caused by somebody stepping on a snake or trying to get too close to it, agitating it or aggravating it in some way,” Reid said. “So the best advice I have is to just leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.”

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.  

Barlow points out that even if you do encounter one of Arkansas’s venomous snakes, it won’t attack unless provoked or trapped. “You’ve got to keep in mind that we are very large compared to a snake, even a venomous snake,” said Barlow. “Venom is in their body for them to procure food. That’s it. They don’t want to waste it on us. They know they can’t eat us. They need that venom in order to get their next meal. So there are very, very few people every year that die in the United States from a snake bite – less than 10 in the entire United States.” 

Even the cottonmouth, a water snake famous for its aggressive temperament, has earned its reputation unfairly. “I do find cottonmouths to be bold sometimes,” said Barlow. “They may hold their ground. They may be curious. They also may be coming towards you, but you’re just really in the path of where they want to go to escape.”

The attacks that do happen, Barlow continues, are almost entirely due to human error. “You know, a few people unfortunately get bit because they decided they want to mess with the snake,” said Barlow. “If you’re close enough to mess with the snake, it’s close enough to mess with you. Snakes would prefer to use camouflage and would prefer to get away. But if there’s nothing else they can do, their mouth and biting is their only other option.”

When it comes to avoiding snake encounters, mindfulness plays a huge part in staying safe. When you’re out enjoying the Arkansas wilderness, watch where you step and avoid putting your hands and feet into places that you can’t see. Wear boots or hiking shoes and long pants that protect your ankles.

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

Ticks and Mosquitos

As we’ve covered, my fear of large predators and venomous snakes is largely unwarranted. They don’t actively seek people out and aren’t likely to attack in case of an encounter. Arkansas’ blood-sucking insects, though? Well, they are an entirely different story.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Ticks are worse than any bear you’ll meet in Arkansas.

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

She’s right to be cautious. According to the Arkansas Department of Health, ticks are responsible for more human disease than any other insect in the Natural State. Tickborne diseases (TBD) include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease, Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness (STARI) 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, too, can spread illnesses like the West Nile virus and the Zika virus, both of which are rare but can be serious. 

“One thing you want to do, especially if you’re in tall grass, wooded areas or areas with a lot of leaf litter where you’re going to most commonly encounter those types of insects, is to wear some boots,” Reid said. “I like to wear boots that come up to the calf and tuck your pant legs into those boots. That’s going to prevent ticks finding easy access to your skin where they can crawl up your body and look for places to take purchase.”

Reid also suggests treating your clothes (long-sleeved shirts and pants, please) and gear with permethrin, an insect repellant spray designed to give long-term protection from ticks and mosquitos.

“You can treat your clothing with an insect repellent that contains permethrin, which is it’s pretty strong. You’re not supposed to put that on your skin. It’s really just for spraying around the cuff of your pants or around your boots, and that can prevent those animals from being able to take hold.”

Fight wildlife with wildlife

Many species that we think of as nuisances are actually key to keeping pests like ticks and mosquitos out of our hair, Barlow said.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Make friends with your neighborhood opossum. He will eat the ticks in your yard!

“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.”

Birds also play a key role in keeping insect populations at bay. And you can help them. By giving your backyard birds a nice place to land, you’re helping to stick it to ticks and mosquitos. Dr. Dan Scheiman, Bird Conservation Director of Audubon Arkansas, has a few suggestions for making your space a bird-friendly place.

“There’s the old saying ‘think global, act local,’ and you can’t get any more local than your own yard,” said Scheiman. “And that is where the Audubon encourages people to get started, making your own yard safe and healthy for birds, whether you own many acres or are living in an apartment, there are things you can do to help birds.”

In addition to planting native plants that will draw insect-eating birds to the yard, keep your cats inside. After habitat loss and climate change, felines are the leading cause of mortality for birds in the United States. “Each year in the U.S. outdoor cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds.” said Sheiman. “That’s not sustainable.”

And wash your bird feeders and birdbaths regularly. Apparently, we’re supposed to be doing this a lot more than you might expect. Bird feeders apparently need a weekly wash in warm, soapy water. During hot summer months, bird baths should be emptied every day and refilled with clean water. Skipping these step means that your would-be bird sanctuary is actually a vector for spreading disease among the very avian neighbors you’re trying to help.   

So there you have it, friends. There’s nothing to fear and no excuse not to get out there and experience the lush wilderness and wildlife of Arkansas. With the help of local organizations like the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Audubon Arkansas to name a few, you have the expertise you need to experience the wonder that is Arkansas.

Contributing writer Bethany Ivie is indoorsy in the best possible way, but she’s been known to don closed-toed shoes and venture forth.