By Robert Lucke
There are no bears in the Bear Paw Mountains to speak of. However, as you plan your first camping trip, there are things to be wary and cautious of. Rattlesnakes, mountain lions and, during spring, fires can cause problems for any picnic or hike.
Rattlesnakes are very prevalent in some areas of the mountains and virtually nonexistent in others. A good rule of thumb is to know that when hiking or camping in the front range of the Bear Paws, rattlesnakes are a way of life on all four sides.
It used to be that there were definite areas of the mountains that were rattlesnake-free. The Faber School on Little Box Elder Creek, the Mosser bridge on Clear Creek and Rotary Hill on Beaver Creek were sort of lines of demarcation. Rattlesnakes were rarely seen farther into the mountains than those points.
Several years ago that all changed. Some blame global warming. (An old tale was that rattlesnakes did not like the colder weather in the higher Bear Paw reaches.) Some blame an influx of gophers, apparently a great feast for rattlers. Whatever the reason, snakes have been moving south farther into the higher mountains on all major drainages. Take Beaver Creek, for example. These days it is commonplace to see rattlesnakes around Bear Paw Lake above Rotary Hill. They have been spotted up Sucker Creek and farther up the Beaver Creek valley as well. On Clear Creek they have been seen in the Hungry Hollow area and as far south as Anderson Creek and Henderson Creek. Granted, in these higher elevations there are not nearly the numbers as there are in lower areas. But a good rule of thumb is that no matter where you are hiking, picnicking or camping, be on the lookout.
There have been fewer mountain lion incidents in the mountains than a couple of years ago. But there are still more than a normal amount of lions throughout the Bear Paws.
Mountain lions are seldom or ever seen being nocturnal animals. An increase in daylight sightings seems to indicate greater numbers. They have been seen in campgrounds on Beaver Creek.
It is wise to keep a clean campground, similar to that in grizzly bear country, so as not to attract lions. Even more important, do not let pets and children wander through mountains alone. Keep your campers together.
Already this spring there has been a major fire at Rocky Boy. That would seem to indicate a high level of fire danger. The lack of moisture last year has caused dry conditions, particularly before the mountains get a good shot of new green growth. Be careful with fires. Don't build a blaze to cook your hotdogs that would resemble the great fire of Havre in 1904. Above all, never leave your campground without putting out campfires completely. When cooking on charcoal, be sure your briquettes are out before disposing of them. Day-old charcoal that looked out has been the cause of more than one fire in the Bear Paws.
Most importantly, practice common sense when hiking, camping or having that first spring picnic. Keep that experience a good one, not one you will remember for years because of a disaster or two.