The Job Hazards of Working in Natural Resources

Jul 26, 2018

If you worked in the woods, do you think you would want to be armed to protect yourself from dangerous animals?

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about the topic, and shares that size isn’t everything.

When I give talks, especially about my decision to become a biologist or what it is like to work in natural resources, there are some recurring questions I have to answer. One of the most common themes involves safety around dangerous animals and whether I carry a firearm to protect myself.

The perception is that the greatest potential danger I might face as a field biologist would be a large apex predator pouncing on me for no reason and doing me in. Admittedly, that is one of many potential (but unlikely) job hazards that could possibly do me in. In fact, the more I think about it, the more examples of on-the-job dangers come to mind.

First, to answer the question directly, I do not, nor have I ever, carried a service firearm to do my field work. I must admit, there have been one or two times where I wished I had a firearm at my disposal. One time I was in the woods, a fair distance from the truck. As I returned to within sight of my truck, I spotted a fairly large black bear approaching me. It was late June or early July, right around this time of year, during the mating season. This is my least favorite time of year to encounter any bears over say 18 months old. This bear stood on its hind legs and huffed, dropped back down on all fours, and began swatting its front paw at the ground. This bear wanted me gone. I wanted this bear to be anywhere but between me and the relative safety of my truck. I did what I always do when I am nervous, I started talking. I apologized to the bear, explained that I would be leaving as soon as I could, and tried to calmly back up while watching and conversing with it. the bear eventually became bored with the conversation and left the area. Had I had a pistol, I doubt the incident would have ended differently. There have been other times where my intuition told me I really should have had some kind of protection, like the time I stumbled onto a freshly killed deer, or the couple of times where I found myself walking alone in the woods and spotted more than one set of fresh wolf tracks. I know that attacks on humans by healthy wolves are extremely rare, but that comes as little comfort when you realize the only protection you are currently carrying while alone in wolf country is a ring of keys and a tape measure. Most times, I hate to say it but my mom was right—the animals really are more afraid of you than you are of them! People, on the other hand, have the potential to make me feel very unsafe. I have seen some people and some situations where I felt extremely unsafe, and a couple where I had to call in a warden to provide protection, and it had nothing to do with animals.

Even though we have wolves, bears, and the occasional cougar roaming the Northwoods, it’s not the big animals that concern me; microscopic threats are far worse. I contracted West Nile Virus when it was first identified in our avian population. On one occasion I was hospitalized after pulling a beaver dam resulted in a serious case of Leptospirosis. Another time I missed some work because I contracted campylobacteriosis because a duckling I was holding managed to kick some of its fecal matter into my face. Snakebites don’t concern me, but skunks and ticks do—Lyme’s disease is extremely dangerous, and rabies is virtually 100% fatal. The most dangerous part of my job from a biological standpoint is not the large toothy animals; it is the invisible enemy that enters the body and attacks it on a cellular level. That means I am less concerned about bears and wolves, and am more concerned about small mammals, insects, and tainted water.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.