SALT LAKE CITY — On May 13, Jared Smith was running on the Broad Fork trail, four and a half miles from the entrance to Big Cottonwood Canyon, when he heard something move beside the trail and then looked to see a cougar.
The big cat followed him closely, within 15 feet at times, for about five minutes.
On October 10, the same thing happened to Kyle Burgess in Slate Canyon in the mountains above Orem.
The big cat following him had cubs, which was likely the reason for her aggression as she followed him down the trail for six minutes, occasionally lunging and snarling.
Both men did the right things. They spoke forcefully and faced the cat as they backed away, doing their best to look big.
Both men also caught their encounters on camera, and both cats eventually went away without causing any injury.
Utah is home to an estimated 2,700 cougars. They range the mountains and deserts, and they are deadly predators.
But they almost never kill people. In fact, most hikers in Utah never see cougars at all.
Dr. Nicki Frey confirmed the rarity of such confrontations and the near absence of attacks from cougars. She’s a wildlife biologist specializing in human-wildlife conflict and an associate professor for the Utah State University extension.
Despite knowing the statistics, she said what scares her in the wild are mountain lions.
“They’re the only animal that really scares me because I know they're seeing me before I see them," Frey said.
If you have hiked often in Utah or anywhere in the American West, you’ve probably been seen by a cougar.
We’re lucky cougars don’t want to have anything to do with us, because we wouldn’t stand a chance.
Cougars range from the size of a German Shepherd (70 pounds) to the size of an NFL running back (220 pounds). They can jump 18 feet straight up and 30 feet forward. They have excellent vision and the strength to kill an animal four times their size.
But in the 21st century, there are news reports of just five deadly cougar attacks in North America, with none in Utah.
The two large mammals that have attacked and killed people in Utah this century?
A bison and a black bear.
In June of 2007, a black bear dragged an 11-year-old boy named Sam Ives out of his family’s tent in the Timpanooke Recreation area in American Fork Canyon. The bear dragged him away and killed him.
The Utah Supreme Court acknowledged that Ives’ death could have been prevented, though.
A man camping in the same area had been attacked by a black bear that morning. His friends scared it away, and he called the appropriate authorities immediately. But those authorities failed to close the campground or warn the other campers of the potential danger.
Black bear attacks are rare, but more common than cougar attacks because black bears are attracted to human food.
It’s also important to notice the victim was a child. Children and smaller people are more likely to be seen as prey, especially to a wounded or sick predator.
Black bears are omnivores with a sense of smell stronger than a bloodhound’s.
Frey says most confrontations with black bears are about the smell of food, and they don’t consider humans food.
“The cases that we have had in Utah, they have been directly attributed to that human having food on them or food nearby, and it was more a case of mistaken identity where the bear was after the food but the human was holding the food,” she said.
The black bear in American Fork Canyon in 2007 was particularly aggressive and had ravaged the food supply of the other camper earlier in the day of the attack.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has already put out a warning for Utahns to be aware of an increased presence of black bears in populated areas because of drought conditions.
“Our biologists feel that there may be an increase in those potential for bear conflicts because of the drought," DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley said. "It’s kind of decreasing ... some of their normal food sources."
But it’s actually bison who have shown more aggression than other large mammals in Utah in recent years.
Larry Adams, a 55-year-old trail runner, died from injuries inflicted by a bison on Antelope Island in August of 2020.
Bison are herbivores who attack when they feel threatened. In many cases, the people who get gored have been irresponsible.
“We generally hear a lot of horror stories coming out of Yellowstone about bad ways of being around a bison,” said Frey, referring to tourists who often approach too closely to get pictures.
“They aren’t big cows,” she added.
In the case of Adams and two other trail runners who survived similar attacks on Antelope Island in 2019, it was not a case of humans gawking or even approaching the bison.
These attacks were examples of the more general dangers of humans and wildlife living and going about their lives in proximity. Antelope Island’s Lake Side Trail is popular with runners because it’s long and flat with great views, interesting rock formations and mile markers.
The key to safety with bison is distance.
The common rule of thumb: “If they notice you, you’re too close.”
In other words, a hiker or runner should watch carefully around corners and over hills, and if a bison is on or close to the trail, you should probably cut your adventure short and leave the area.
Bison look big and they move slowly most of the time. But they can run 40 miles per hour. That’s a lot faster than sprinter Usain Bolt’s fastest clocked speed of 28 mph. They also weigh a ton — literally, 2000 pounds.
If you find yourself being chased, you won’t outrun them. So if safe cover isn’t close, the best bet is to dodge as you make your way to a safer area.
Another animal almost as big as a bison can also present a deadly threat, though they haven’t hurt Utahns in recent years: Moose.
Jolley says some wildlife managers have told her that moose spook them more than other animals in the wild.
Moose are herbivores, but they’re cantankerous. A big one stands seven feet tall, weighs 1,500 pounds, and can run 35 miles per hour. A male’s antlers can span five feet.
They are the largest members of the deer family, and unlike the others, they live alone except when a mother has calves.
“They do kind of get a little grumpy. They have decided where they are going to be, and they are the biggest, and they're not used to being told what to do,” said Frey.
The Utah DWR points out that while moose have not harmed people in Utah in recent years, they cause more injuries than any other animal in Alaska, where moose habitat and homes tend to be closer together.
As with bison, the best thing to do around moose is keep your distance. They tend to live in forested areas, so there will likely be trees or other obstacles to hide behind if they charge. Usually the purpose of a charge is to maintain territory, protect a calf, or just get you out of their way. Dodge, find cover, move away and they should move on.
The key is awareness, says Jolley, who pointed us to the website wildawareutah.org. The site is a collaborative effort between DWR, Utah State University, and Utah’s Hogle Zoo. It has recommendations on how to interact with Utah wildlife.
Animal attacks are extraordinarily rare, but a healthy fear is important and sensible when we go into the territory of creatures bigger and stronger than us. But just enough fear to be alert, not to scare you from experiencing the unparalleled beauty and adventure around us.
Specific advice on how to handle potentially dangerous encounters with different animals can be found at wildawareutah.org.