A background: my wildlife photography practice.

One of my readers pointed out something very important in my last post.

I should have made this preamble before I began posting photos that I took of ‘cute little teddy bears’ from my summer adventures of camping in various Canadian and US national parks.

It is very dangerous to approach ANY wildlife. As you will see on many signs around the park you are in, it is illegal to feed the wildlife and highly recommended (and the law in a few parks) to stay at least 100 yards away from a bear, wolf, cougar (and other large predators) and 25 yards from all other wildlife when outside of your car.

This summer, and the two previous summers, I enjoyed months of wildlife photography, but enjoyed it in a safe and responsible manner (aka zoom lens, inside my car)

If you were planning on hittin’ the road and exploring a national park near (or far) from you – make friends with park rangers as they often know how to handle situations when an animal is near. Listen to them – they know (usually). Visitor Centers are also key if you are new to a park. It’s wise to find out what the rules and regulations are and how you stay safe and responsible in a territory where bears, bison, elk, etc. frequent.

If you leave any food or beverage around your campsite unsupervised and a bear is exposed to this food, this bear will be eradicated and the blood of this bear will be on your hands. This actually happened in our camp area this summer (don’t worry: we had the human culprits fined before the bear was able to grab any food).

Given the concern of habituating bears and the omni-present reality that there will be that one person who crosses the line, many have argued that if you see a bear in a national park, you should not stop to watch it or take a photograph, knowing that it will lead to a bear jam. And while I understand this argument, there is an important counterpoint.

Bears – and other indicator species – need large, roadless wilderness in order to survive. While many of these spaces exist in the world, places like Yellowstone and Banff are not and never will be a roadless wilderness. In fact, though the perception is that these wild spaces exist to conserve wildlife, the reality is they were created almost always for the benefit of the people. It’s a fact we have to work with. Many national parks are trying to re-wild their front and back country and put a heightened focus on animal conservation. This is admirable. But roadways and trails (and, frustratingly, towns and golf courses and ski resorts) are here to stay. As a result, this imperfect version of protected wilderness needs to strike a fine balance between animal needs and the bigger picture of helping people foster a love for nature and conservation.

Seeing bears in the wild is a remarkable experience and positive bear (and wildlife) encounters are critical to creating a culture that appreciates and supports conservation. It’s a proven fact that people who have first-hand experience with a region or a specific animal are more likely to believe in its protection. So while most of us can appreciate why many parks discourage bear watching, in my opinion, it’s a futile fight and a misguided one to boot.

Parks like Banff and Yellowstone will never be the kind of wilderness required to maintain functioning populations of large carnivores; however, in order to create the political will to establish such spaces, these parks can assist conservation through land protection, yes, but also can play a more critical role in sparking a love in people for wilderness.

I am very lucky myself that my boyfriend studies bear behaviour, has been trained by world renowned bear biologists and bear guides and has had experience of over 20 years photographing and researching not only bears, but many other types of wildlife all across North America. We should all be so lucky to have a guide such as him. But for many people, their ‘guide’ will be rangers and the difference between a good ranger and a bad ranger is stark.

We need parks and rangers to champion policies and people that use wildlife jams as a manageable tool to provide people with first-hand education and positive experiences (and photos) to take home and share with their social networks. Yes, there will be times when a wildlife jam is inappropriate (impact on the animal, impact on traffic, people safety, etc.) and a good ranger knows the difference between a bad jam that can’t happen and a good jam that is safe. And by educating people at jams – and, in a sense, deputizing them to help look-out for animals and people at jams without rangers – creates the conditions for positive experiences and, critically, an environmentally conscious populous.

Yellowstone’s wolf project is a great example of how a park’s policy has led to this difficult balance being achieved and rangers like Yellowstone’s John Kerr are the gold standard in conservation law enforcement.

At the other end of the spectrum (and this is a blog for another day) Kananaskis Country – and their front line conservation officers – are the sad example of what not to do. Anger, intimidation and policy making on the fly is no way to handle people, bears or achieve the balancing act of necessary co-existence.

So I thank my reader for reminding me to write this important back-story that I failed to provide the first time round and I hope it helps provide food-for-thought for others who are planning on watching wildlife in national parks. Guidelines exist for a reason and all animals should be respected and given their space. But we also need parks to help people find inspiration from nature and watching/photographing wildlife is a necessary evil to help create real parks that place animals first. It’s a balance, but Yellowstone and Jasper proves it is possible, whereas Kananaskis and Grand Teton remind us work remains to find a better way.

Please read my previous post on how to deal when encountering an aggressive bear. It’s very rare, and if you do read about a bear attack, it’s more than likely the human did not follow the appropriate protocol in an area with bears.

A few links to help you be safe and a responsible guest:

Yellowstone National Park – Your Safety in Bear Country

Jasper National Park – Bear Management

Bear ‘mauling’ in Yellowstone?

Such a sad event happened when we were in Yellowstone about a month ago, and I am very sorry for the family of this man who was killed when he encountered a bear.

Here is the first article from MSNBC and the second from Reuters…both with different interpretations of the event, may I add.

But attack? Mauling? I read these two articles on this tragic event when I returned from Yellowstone. They did not mesh with the official accounts we heard from friends that worked in the park and were on the scene of the tragic event. I will not get into details, but I just want to give some advice for people who hike in areas where bears are bound to be nearby.

And, please, if you are hiking in a national park, such as Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Waterton, Jasper or Kananaskis, PREPARE for a bear encounter. It was shocking how many people we came across in our hikes that were totally oblivious to hiking in bear country.

Aside from all the information the park rangers give you upon entering the park, the countless signs as you walk and drive by, the warnings at the beginning of ALL trail heads….use some common sense when walking in bear country. Bears and humans can interact quite peacefully, and according to the Reuters article, the “odds of such an attack were “1 in 3 million”.

Here’s how to be one with the bears while hiking in their backyard:

Me and my bear spray, best friends!

1. Bear Spray – you can get it at any outdoor/camping store ($35-50). Carry it on you, take it in your tent when camping. People that carry spray have never been fatally attacked by a bear.

2. Talk to a park ranger about where bears have recently been seen and ask them how to deal with them when they are encountered. Every bear is different and some might be more inclined to get closer to you, while others will pack up and leave as soon as they smell humans.

3. Read the signs at the beginning of trail heads. They give you advice as well on what to do when you run into a bear.

4. Do NOT run from a bear. Their predator/prey mode will kick in and they will catch up to you. Worst thing to do!

5. Make a lot of noise when you are in their territory. Announce your arrival to ensure that they are not startled. Clap your hands, talk loudly, sing a song…I think they were scared off by my singing voice anyway! There is a myth that “bear bells” will deter them from approaching. It in fact does not, it has even been suggested that it might attract them since it sounds similar to a bird or small animal.

6. Hike with at least three people, or make sure the trail has many hikers traveling on it. There has never been a documented attack on 3+ hikers.

7. Don’t climb a tree or try to swim away from them. They can do that too, I’ve seen it! Black bears love tree climbing and grizzlies love splashing around in the water!

8. If a bear does charge you, keep making a lot of noise and wave your hands around. Bears usually false charge you first and then stop when they get closer. Their eye sight is terrible, so if you wave your arms around, you will look much bigger than you actually are.

9. Track bear feces, footprints, hair and know if you might encounter one ahead, or that they have been in the area recently and keep your eyes open!

10. Ok – say a bear will not stop and it is about to attack. Drop to the ground, play dead if it’s a grizzly bear. Black bear, fight back! They are for the most part scavengers and do not want to fight too hard for their meal.

I went on countless hikes in my 7 weeks in grizzly and black bear areas this summer and encountered four different bears while hiking. No problemo! Please note though, I am not an expert, but I have researched this quite a bit.

Be smart and safe please people!