Wildlife Safety in the South



Black Bears

A photo an American Black BearDespite the name, the coat of a black bear isn’t always black. There are brown black bears, white black bears and even a blue glacier bear. Experts estimate the average weight of a black bear is 300 pounds. Despite their size, black bears are very agile tree climbers. During times of danger or threat, bear cubs will take shelter in trees. Bears by nature are opportunists. In the wild, they will feed on whatever is readily available. Food odors and improperly stored garbage will attract bears to campgrounds and picnic sites. Bears become habituated to human food if they find it readily available. Although they are naturally afraid of humans, the animals lose this fear as they begin to associate human scents with the reward of food. Black bears can become a threat to humans, property and themselves—a pattern that normally ends with death. Protect yourself and protect the black bears by storing trash and food in safe locations when you visit a national forest.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Avoid camping and hiking alone in the backcountry.
  • Make noise to avoid surprising a bear.
  • Never approach a bear or other wild animal.
  • Do not hike in the dark.
  • Carry EPA registered bear pepper spray.
  • Keep a clean camp site by properly disposing of food scraps and garbage. For more information, visit Leave No Trace.
  • Do not leave food or garbage inside fire rings, grills or around your site.
  • Never leave food or coolers unattended, even in developed picnic areas.
  • If bear-proof containers are not available, store food and garbage inside a hard-top vehicle or trailer.
  • Never store food inside of a tent.
  • Wipe tabletops clean before vacating a camp or picnic site.
  • If a bear is observed nearby, pack up your food and trash immediately and vacate the area as soon as possible.
  • If necessary, attempt to scare the animal away with loud shouts, by banging pans together, or throwing rocks and sticks at it.
  • If a bear approaches, move away slowly; do not run. Get into a vehicle or a secure building.
  • Never run away from a bear—back away slowly and make lots of noise.
  • If you are attacked by a black bear, try to fight back using any object available. Act aggressively and intimidate the bear by yelling and waving your arms. Playing dead is not appropriate.

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Photo of an alligatorOn the Atlantic Coast, alligators can be found from Florida to coastal North Carolina. Alligators are also found in the Upper Coastal Plain, which includes the Central Savannah River Area of Georgia and South Carolina. As top predators, they are important in controlling prey numbers. Using their tails and snouts to wallow out the muck and push out the vegetation, large alligators construct and maintain gator holes. During the dry season, these gator holes remain filled with water and create a refuge when the surrounding shallow water has dried up. These water holes are an important means of survival for many other animals. Be careful around alligators, they can attack you.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Alligators should never be approached.
  • Don’t swim in areas inhabited by alligators.
  • Avoid swimming at night or dusk.
  • Avoid shorelines with thick vegetation.
  • Never feed, entice or approach an alligator.
  • Never throw food, such as bait, in the water or on shore.
  • Do not allow pets to swim in areas with alligators. Pets resemble the alligator's natural prey, and may attract them.
  • It is illegal to possess, handle or harass an alligator.
  • Stay in restricted, designated swimming areas.


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A photo of a copperhead snakeSnakes live in a wide variety of habitats including forests, swamps, grasslands, deserts and both fresh and salt water. Some are active at night, others during the day. Snakes are predators and eat a wide variety of animals, including rodents, insects, birds' eggs and young birds. Snakes are coldblooded and must move to a suitable surrounding environment to regulate their body temperature. They can't survive extreme summer heat for more than 10-20 minutes and are rarely found in the open. They hibernate in the winter and may also be inactive periodically during hot summer weather.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Before venturing out, familiarize yourself with the snakes of your area.
  • Visit http://crittercontrol.com/ for snake species identification, geographic location and more.

How To Avoid Snakebites

  • Do not tease or harass snakes.
  • Wear long pants and proper foot gear, especially at night.
  • Try as much as possible not to surprise a snake.
  • Stay on trails and watch where you sit and where you place your hands and feet, especially when climbing or stepping over fences, large rocks and logs or when collecting firewood.

How To Treat Snakebites

  • If someone is bit by a snake, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.
  • Keep the snakebite victim still, as movement helps the venom spread through the body.
  • Keep the injured body part motionless and just lower than heart level.
  • Keep the victim warm, calm and at rest.
  • Do not allow the person to eat or drink anything.


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A photo of different types of ticksWeather conditions seem to have the greatest effect on the tick population. After a mild winter, the tick population is high. Ticks are worse in early spring, when they climb into brush and wait for a chance to attach to a host and feed on the host's blood.

Ticks can carry a variety of diseases. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease are two of the known diseases spread by ticks. Some diseases, such as Lyme disease may affect pets and livestock as well as people.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Wear light-colored clothing which allows you to see ticks on your clothing.
  • Tuck your pant legs into your socks so ticks cannot crawl up the inside of your pant legs.
  • Apply repellents to discourage tick attachment. Repellents containing permethrin can be sprayed on boots and clothing, and will last for several days. Repellents containing DEET (n, n-diethyl-mtoluamide) can be applied to the skin, but will last only a few hours before reapplication is necessary. Read labels carefully and use as directed on children.
  • Sprinkle sulphur on your socks, boots and pant legs.
  • Stay on trails where the chance of picking up ticks is less likely.
  • Avoid tall grass and brush.
  • Routinely check your hair and body for ticks.
  • Conduct a body check upon return from potentially tick-infested areas by searching your entire body for ticks. Use a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body.
  • Remove any tick you find on your body.
  • If there is any indication of redness or swelling, go to a doctor immediately and take the tick with you in a plastic bag for identification.


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A photo of a black widow spiderSpiders get a pretty bad rap in the world of first aid. Plenty of red, raised welts have been identified, either correctly or incorrectly, as spider bites.

Despite the belief by many victims that spiders are responsible for their pain, spider bites are often harmless. Indeed, most true spider bites go unnoticed and untreated.

In the United States, black widow spiders are often considered the most venomous. Brown recluse spiders have garnered plenty of attention in the last ten years or so.

Despite the large wounds often associated with brown recluse, they are much less likely to cause significant injury than black widows. Brown recluse are also misdiagnosed quite a bit, with abscesses attributed to them that they didn't cause. Brown Recluse spiders are only found in the Southeast United States.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Reduce clutter, especially in your closets, garages, basements and attics, as spiders prefer quiet, undisturbed areas.
  • Look before moving.
  • Move firewood, building materials and debris away from your home.
  • Keep shrubs, vines and tree limbs trimmed away from the side of your home.
    Install yellow or sodium vapor light bulbs at outside entrances. They are less attractive to night-flying insects, which help to draw in spiders.

Places to check indoors include:

  • Check basements, attics, crawl spaces, closets, under/behind furniture, inside shoes, boxes of stored items and between hanging clothes.
  • It should also be pointed out that you should shake out your bed linens before getting into bed at night.

Places to check outdoors include:

  • Check barns, utility sheds, woodpiles and underneath lumber, rocks and accumulated debris.
  • To avoid being bitten, wear work gloves when performing your inspection.


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A photo of a scorpionScorpions are found worldwide, although  those found here in the South are not considered dangerous.  For most a scorpion sting feels like a bee sting.  

Generally, less than 5% of stings result in signs and symptoms requiring medical attention.  However, If you have known allergies to bees or other stinging insects, always carry anti-histimenes and/or Epi-pens in your first aid kit.

Safety Checklist (download)

To prevent being stung by a scorpion:

  • Wear protective footwear especially at night.
  • Exercise caution when lifting rocks, logs and when collecting firewood.
  • Do not handle scorpions with bare hands.
  • Shake out footwear, clothing and bedding to expel unwanted creepy crawlies.
  • Don’t sleep directly on the ground when camping.

If you are stung by a scorpion:

  • Apply a cold compress immediately for pain and swelling. Stings are usually Immediate and intense, burning pain at the sting site that lasts about 30 minutes. Mild inflammation may be present, with the sting mark not always visible.  
  • Seek Medical Attention in an allergic reaction such as breathing difficulties,  stomach pain or extreme swelling and pain, vomiting, or shock.   Use of prescribed medications such as Epi-pen or over the counter anti-histimines may be useful.


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Fire Ants

A photo of fire antsMost ants are merely an annoyance while camping, hiking or picnicking. However, the red fire ant poses the most serious risk of any ant in North America because of its aggressive nature and the potency of its sting. Fire ants are dark reddish-brown and only a fraction of an inch in size. A fire ant colony will contain ants of a variety of sizes, whereas most other ants are uniform in size.

When attacking, the fire ant stinger injects venom. It is fatal to small animals, and very uncomfortable to humans. It produces a burning sensation like fire. Small red bumps will appear on the skin and be annoyingly itchy. The venom from fire ants can actually be deadly to persons who are sensitive or allergic. Fire ants can be avoided if you know how to identify them.

A photo of a Fire Ant MoundA fire ant nest might look like a sandy mound, a dome or a bald spot on the soil; but the colony is likely to extend several feet underground. Just because you're a few steps away from a surface mound of loose soil does not mean you're standing at a safe distance from a fire ant nest. Or, the nest might be invisible, hiding under objects like logs or rocks.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Watch out for mounds of loose soil that don't seem to fit in with other surroundings.
  • Avoid camping at the base of trees, especially if you notice rotting wood.
  • Don't set up tents with floors on top of ant mounds or try to coexist with them in any way.
  • Keep your camp site clean.
  • Do not disturb ant mounds.
  • If you encounter ants, leave them alone and find a new camping site. Don't try to get rid of them.
  • If you or someone in your group is sensitive or allergic to fire ants, always bring appropriate medication in case of a serious reaction.


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A photo of a mosquitoThere is a risk of mosquito bite every time you enter a forest or work in and around the woods. In addition to being uncomfortable, mosquito bites can cause illnesses, including several types of encephalitis, dengue and West Nile virus. The chance that any one person is going to become ill from a single mosquito bite remains low. The risk of severe illness and death is highest for people over 50 years old, although people of all ages can become ill. Preventing mosquito bites is the best way to reduce the risk of infection from the diseases mosquitoes can carry.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Apply an insect repellent as necessary. Read labels carefully and use as directed on children.
  • Treat your clothes with permethrin repellents. Do not use permethrins on your skin.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes to help prevent mosquitoes from reaching the skin.
  • Whenever possible, wear long-sleeves, socks and long pants.
  • Wear clothing that helps you blend in with the background. Mosquitoes hone in on color contrast and movement.
  • Avoid perfumes, colognes, hair sprays, lotions and soaps; all of which attract mosquitoes.
  • Reduce exposure by staying indoors during peak mosquito hours (from dusk until dawn).
  • Avoid lingering in places where mosquitoes lay their eggs, usually around standing water.
  • Wash mosquito bites with mild soap and water.


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Bees and Wasps

A photo of a hornetBees, wasps, hornets and yellow jackets can be either a minor nuisance or a serious danger. Complications are often minor, such as the development of infection at the sting site requiring treatment with antibiotic. Irritation, redness and swelling would be mild reactions. Allergic reactions include swelling of the lips or throat, breathing problems, faintness or confusion.

A photo of a waspFactoid: between one and two million people in the United States are very allergic to stinging insect venom, and may experience a very severe reaction that requires immediate medical attention.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • If you know you are allergic to a bee, wasp, hornet or yellow jacket sting; carry medication.
  • Let others know that you may have an allergic reactions, and that you have medication.
  • Apply insect repellent containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) when you're outdoors.
  • Treat your clothes with permethrin repellents. Do not use permethrins on your skin.
  • Avoid heavy, flowery perfumes; colognes or scents. They may attract bees.
  • Never strike or swing at a wasp or a bee.
  • Stay away from nests. Do not try to destroy nests.
  • Wear light-colored or light-cotton clothing. Avoid bright-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

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Rabid Animals

Our national forests provide habitat for wild animals, including animals like bears and venomous snakes. Wild animals can be upset by human presence and can unexpectedly become aggressive.

Do not give them a reason or an opportunity to attack. Always keep your distance. Your safety is your responsibility. Animals that live in this forest are wild, even though they may look or act tame. Wildlife experts recommend keeping at least 100 yards away from bears and 25 yards from other large animals.

The consequences of approaching wildlife can be serious. You are responsible for your own safety as well as the safety of wildlife. Wild animals should be allowed to forage for food, care for their young, sleep and play without human disturbance.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Keep your pet under physical restraint at all times.
  • Don't leave your food out in the open when he's not eating it. It could attract unwanted insects and wildlife.
  • Approaching or feeding wild animals is never appropriate.
  • Wild animals (including deer, bison, and elk) are individualistic and unpredictable.
  • A car horn, barking dog, or excited children can trigger an animal into fight or flight behavior.
  • Both the females and males of most wildlife species are equally dangerous. Always maintain a safe distance.
  • Wash hands regularly to prevent harmful diseases .


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Pet Dogs

A photo of a dog and its ownerTaking your dog camping can be a great experience, but there are a few considerations to remember. Dogs can get easily distracted by wild animals and lost while chasing them in the woods.

In an outdoor environment, your dog will most likely experience an increase in physical activity. You should also take your dog’s personality into consideration. While you might not be bothered by your dog’s barking, other campers might be annoyed.

Safety Checklist (download)

  • Keep your pet on a leash and controlled at all times.
  • Give your dog plenty of food and water, rest and watch for signs
    of stress and fatigue.
  • Secure your pet in a shady spot and give it lots of attention to
    minimize barking.
  • If you encounter wild animals, respect them by moving your dog away from the area.
  • Be prepared for pet medical needs; treat injuries immediately.
  • Carry an ID tag and recent photo of your dog in case it gets lost. If this occurs, notify authorities as soon as possible.
  • Ensure you know the area when searching for a lost pet.
  • Take your dog’s favorite dog treat and favorite noisy toy, in case you embark on a search.