Glacier National Park has been wildly successful in creating a culture of fear to protect people and bears. Nowhere else, to my knowledge, are tourists so bear aware. Bear spray is prominently for sale at all the stores, provided at all the rental cabins and touted by locals and visitors alike. There was even a canister on the railing of a raised deck at a local restaurant. “The rangers never even get out of their vehicles without bear spray,” one local “expert” advised. All of the trails have signs, yards from the start, that warn you are entering bear country and should be carrying spray. So many visitors comment that they were afraid to go on a hike because they thought they would encounter a bear but are relieved that they did because it was so beautiful and there were no bears.
The reality is that bear encounters aren’t all that common. They just occur away from the roadsides where park personnel cannot regulate the interactions and monitor people’s behavior like they do at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In this environment, keeping visitors and bears safe seems to necessitate a mutual fear. When humans and bears are comfortable around each other, fatal misunderstandings are bound to occur.
Bear’s fear of people keeps them out of harm’s way. It’s also what makes encountering them on a narrow trail unlikely. They hear you or smell you and run off without you ever knowing there was a bear around. People’s fear of bears prevents us from approaching bears for a better photo or doing the crazy things you see in Yellowstone National Park like approaching bison for a selfie (arguably more dangerous than a bear).
In the six days I spent in and around Glacier National Park, driving 1000 miles and hiking 30, I saw one black bear pawprint some distance off a trail (outside the park), one pile of fresh bear scat just next to a trail and a black bear at the edge of some willows more than 100 yards away who ran off, alarmed by a golf cart behind me. I had bear spray with me whenever I hiked, as I do whenever I go out into bear country because its the responsible thing to do for the bears. But I’ve seen much more bear activity in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, North Carolina, Minnesota, British Columbia
In Yellowstone National Park, where most visitors never venture more than 100 yards from the roads, park staff and volunteers can manage the majority of human-bear interactions, so the culture of fear isn’t necessary to keep everyone safe. Most Yellowstone visitors aren’t worrying about crossing paths with a bear; rather, they are hoping to see one. Because a majority of Glacier visitors hike the trails, the fear education seems to work well to keep
My concern is what happens with that fear when people return home. In Grand Teton NP, where roadside bears are almost ordinary, well-managed and accustomed to being ogled by people, tourists leave that experience as bear advocates. Grizzly 399 is literally world-famous, she has a twitter account and her own Facebook page. These tourists have become wildlife advocates and fuel conservation. In Yellowstone, wolf-watching contributes half a billion dollars to the local economy. It is safe for the people and the wolves because you simply cannot approach a wild wolf. They are notoriously wary of people and will maintain a safe distance no matter how many people come to admire and photograph them. Travelers come from all over the world to see a wolf in the wild and are forever changed by their connections with these icons of the wild. Yellowstone wolf “06”, called “the most famous wolf in the world”, was legally shot by a hunter outside the park and the outcry at her death was astounding. The voices for wolf advocacy and conservation are loud, numerous and growing. It was not so long ago that wolves were largely reviled. This is all because people have come to respect these animals instead of fearing them.
Wild places serve to connect people to nature and wildlife. But what impact does fear have on that connection? I’m thrilled that just about everyone in Glacier National Park carries bear spray. It saves lives – of bears and people. If it were done out of mutual respect for the needs and space of wild creatures instead of fear of them, we would all be better off. Connection instead of discord – that’s a lesson for the generations.
What has your experience been? Were you afraid but still had a profound connection with nature? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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