[Guest post by Daryl Ratajczak, a black bear biologist and advocate. Daryl is the former Black Bear Program Coordinator and Chief of Wildlife for the state of Tennessee. He is also a regular wildlife instructor for Wildlife for You]
I killed a bear. Say it.
It makes your stomach turn in knots. It is an appalling thought for many of us because we love bears. Therefore, we do not like to think we had a hand in the premature or accidental death of one.
Yet the odds of it being true are striking and numerous.
We want to believe that we have had no part in a bear’s untimely death, especially since it would bother us if we knew that we did. Yet, we often ignore the telltale signs that we may have had a hand in it.
What are those telltale signs, you ask?
If you are an occasional visitor to bear country, whether alone or with your family, do you secure your food and garbage? Most probably do. A few don’t. But that was an easy one. Everybody knows to do that, at least we hope.
So, let’s look at the more subtle ways we may be killing these bears. We still need to clean up these things, and it takes effort on everyone’s part.
Have you ever parked your car and pursued a bear to get that perfect picture?
We all like taking pictures of wildlife, and that’s OK when it happens by a chance encounter, but does our passion and interest in that perfect picture drive us to pursue and potentially harass that bear?
So how can you tell if the bear is being harassed?
It’s pretty simple. Does the bear know you are there? The mere presence and awareness of humans cause the bear to never truly relax. It remains stressed. Humans are a natural enemy of bears, and they flee from our presence in most situations.
If you encounter a bear opportunistically, whether driving or hiking, and capture a few frames, that’s fine. Click and move a safe distance away. That situation shouldn’t be too impactful to either party since bears typically encounter stressful events throughout the day, but they are usually short-lived. For example, they have run-ins with other bears, bobcats, packs of coyotes, and of course, the occasional hiker. Do you think a bear prefers to stick around danger in those situations? They don’t; they exhibit avoidance behavior. In other words, they seek a safe distance.
I already know what you’re thinking. Yes, bears can become habituated or used to human presence, but a human following its every move rarely comforts a bear. It matters not if it is a rambunctious horde of people or a single photographer. Following a bear too close to capture a picture often causes undue stress on the bear.
Also, for those genuinely inquisitive types who like to consider themselves as part of the bear’s world, if you follow individual bears and know where the bear is going to be throughout most of its active periods, you are probably stressing that bear if you know where the bear dens each and every winter, you are probably stressing that bear. If you are always around that bear, especially if it has cubs, you are probably stressing that bear. Let’s give the bears a chance to be bears. They are not movie stars; therefore, we should not act like the paparazzi and stake out their lives.
So, what if you’re not a photographer and love seeing and reading about bears? Here is something to ponder.
Have you ever shared photos on social media that portrayed a bear in an unnatural situation and pawned it off as “cute”? Those viral videos and photographs of bears playing in hot tubs or entertaining themselves on a child’s backyard swing breed individuals looking for the same internet fame.
Sadly, there are countless instances of people intentionally trying to lure bears into their backyards, most of which are probably for nefarious reasons. And yes, attracting a bear to your yard to get a “cute” video or picture to show to your friends is nefarious.
Studies show that bears that hang around human developments have significantly shorter life spans due to increased threats. In other words, they die prematurely. Yet, people still think it’s cool to have bears in town or around their houses or neighborhoods.
Believe it or not, if you visit or stay in rental cabins in bear country and read through the logbook, you’ll often read how often people intentionally place or “innocently” place food around the cabin to see the bears better. One never realizes or thinks about how these actions possibly lead to a dead bear, but damn, that sure is cute.
Bottom line, folks, prematurely killing a bear is NOT something we want to do. I do not think many people reading this have a direct hand in a bear’s death, but most of us exhibit bad behaviors for bears.
So, let’s do our part and not turn a blind eye to our actions anymore. You now know your actions have consequences. And by all means, don’t vilify those that may unknowingly be doing the things mentioned in this article. They may genuinely be ignorant and not know of the consequences of their actions, so now is your chance to educate! Be kind and be knowledgeable.
When it comes to doing right by the bears, let’s start by looking in the mirror and correcting that person’s actions first. After all, it’s not for you; it’s for the bears.
[ For more information on ethical wildlife photography: https://www.nanpa.org/wp-content/uploads/Ethical-Field-Practices-Revised-3-2018.pdf]