Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
Crossing paths with wildlife comes with some inherent risks. You may not come face-to-face with a lion or swim in shark-infested waters in the Beehive State, but Utah has its own fair share of dangerous animals.
While some may be obvious, others might surprise you. Check out the list below to learn how you can protect yourself (and your loved ones) from potential danger.
Bees, wasps and hornets
From 1900 to 1990, 28 people in Utah died from venomous stings and bites, according to a report in the Great Basin Naturalist. Bees or hornets cause 11 of the fatalities in that period. Rattlesnakes accounted for five of the other victims and the rest were attributed to unknown insects.
The Centers for Disease Control reports an annual average of 63 deaths nationally from bee, hornet and wasp stings from 200-2017.
Sometimes the most dangerous living things are the smallest. Mosquitoes are a prime example. Aside from being a major annoyance to campers and outdoor enthusiasts, these little pests can also carry serious diseases. In Utah, West Nile virus is your main concern.
"West Nile virus is a yearly presence in Utah and it isn't going away," said Hannah Rettler, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. "Even though the number of human cases has decreased in recent years, it is important to understand that West Nile virus has established itself in mosquito populations in the state."
Rettler also said that Utah has averaged 12 human cases of West Nile each year since 2009. Some cases are severe — even deadly. Symptoms of a severe case include a high fever, a severe headache and stiff neck, disorientation, and confusion. If you've been bitten by a mosquito and experience these symptoms, see your healthcare provider immediately.
You might not think of Utah as a place where bears roam wild and free, but there are thousands of them in the local forests and mountains. Black bears are Utah's largest predator, but don't be fooled by the name — they aren't always black. According to Wild Aware Utah, they can range from light blonde to black and every shade of brown.
In a recent article, KSL reported that while bear attacks in Utah are rare, they're horrific when they happen. The worst case was in June 2007 when a black bear ripped an 11-year-old boy from a tent he was sharing with his family in American Fork Canyon. Tragically, officials found the boy's body nearly 400 yards from the campsite.
More recently, a young black bear bit a 13-year-old boy while he was camping at the Dewey Bridge Campground near Moab in August 2019. The bear bit the boy while he was sleeping outside in a sleeping bag, but it was scared off when the boy woke up.
If you do encounter a black bear, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources says to do the following:
Stand your ground. Never back up, lie down or play dead. Stay calm and give the bear a chance to leave. Prepare to use your bear spray or another deterrent.
Don't run away or climb a tree. Black bears are excellent climbers and can run up to 35 mph — you cannot outclimb or outrun them.
Know bear behavior. If a bear stands up, grunts, moans or makes other sounds, it's not being aggressive. These are the ways a bear gets a better look or smell and expresses its interest.
Maybe you saw the viral video of the Utah man being stalked by a mountain lion (also known as a cougar or puma) for six minutes up Slate Canyon last year. If that scared you off the hiking trails, don't worry. Utah State University wildlife specialist Terry Messmer says that mountain lion sightings are rare because they generally try to avoid humans. But that doesn't mean they don't still pose a threat.
If you come across a cougar in the wild, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources warns you shouldn't try to run away. That would trigger their instinctive prey response and make them pursue or attack you. Instead, just remember the term "scaredy-cat." Mountain lions are intimidated by loud sounds and bigger animals, so speak firmly and do anything you can to make yourself appear bigger. (Raising your arms above your head or opening your jacket may work.)
Few things are more nerve-wracking than hearing an ominous rattling sound when you're out in the wild. But if you hear it in your own backyard, it's even more terrifying. Unfortunately, drought conditions like those experienced in recent years bring rattlesnakes into proximity of people while searching for food and water, according to a Deseret News report. Luckily, rattlesnakes instinctively avoid humans, so bites are rare.
"However, that changes if a snake thinks it's threatened and there's no way to escape," Drew Dittmer, native species coordinator with the DWR, said in a statement to the Deseret News last year. "In that case, the snake will often strike to protect itself. Just don't approach it. Give it plenty of space, and leave it alone. Respect the snake, and you will be safe."
Black widow spiders
Here's another one you might be alarmed to find in your home: the black widow spider. According to Utah Pest Control, these arachnids are "surprisingly common" in Utah, and their bite causes severe and even life-threatening reactions. You'll recognize it by its shiny black coat and red hourglass shape on the abdomen, and they usually lurk in secluded areas.
Because their venom is particularly dangerous to children, WebMD suggests taking your child to the emergency room immediately if you suspect they've been bitten. To prevent further infection and ease symptoms, you can also wash the bite with soap and water, apply a cold ice pack or washcloth and apply an antibiotic cream.
A distant cousin of spiders, scorpions are no less scary to encounter in the wild — or in your home! Your biggest worry would be the Arizona bark scorpion, which in Utah is mainly found in Kane County. USU states that most scorpion stings only cause swelling, discoloration, inflammation and pain, but an Arizona bark scorpion sting can be deadly. If you do get stung, try to capture the scorpion so you can properly identify it and then contact poison control for further instructions.
Pop quiz: Are you safer riding a horse or riding a motorcycle? If you said motorcycle, you'd be right. According to University of Utah emergency room physician Dr. Troy Madsen, horse-related injuries are more prevalent than motorcycle injuries. In an interview with The Scope, Madsen said the biggest danger from horses is the possibility of falling or getting bucked off.
"The most common injury would be head injuries," he said. "You've got to think of it kind of like bikes or motorcycles. If you fall off a horse, the biggest risk is going to be your head and your spine. I think the biggest thing we see with horses is people who get bucked off a horse, who come down on their head, who then have a significant head injury. Maybe a skull fracture or lacerations, bleeding in the head being the most significant thing that we see."
Since falls happen to even the best of riders, The Spruce Pets recommends riding a horse with proper head protection and knowing how to perform an emergency dismount.
You might be less surprised to see dogs on the list, given that their bites can have serious consequences. Each year in the U.S., dozens of people are killed in dog attacks and thousands are injured. According to dogbites.org, there were 46 fatal dog attacks in 2020.
While deadly dog attacks in Utah are uncommon, serious bites happen every year, like one in 2019 where a young boy lost his hand.
Knowing what to do after a dog bite is critical for ensuring that you don't suffer any long-lasting consequences.
The final dangerous animal you should know about is none other than a common house cat.
"Although cats are great companions, cat owners should be aware that sometimes cats can carry harmful germs that can cause a variety of illnesses in people, ranging from minor skin infections to serious illnesses," states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you see signs of an infection after a cat bite. The CDC recommends thoroughly washing your hands after handling, cleaning up after, or feeding cats.
Knowledge is power
Did anything on the list surprise you? Now that you're armed with knowledge, you're ready to venture out a little more prepared than you were before!