Educational Series: Help Stop Wild Animal Tragedies This Summer

By Nick Engelfried
It’s the time of year when families across the nation get ready to participate in one of our country’s best summertime traditions: the summer vacation. Over the next few months thousands of people will take to the road to visit national and state parks, national forests, and other recreational lands. For animal and nature lovers a summer vacation can be an amazing opportunity to see wildlife and beautiful places. However, there are rules you should follow to make sure you aren’t having a negative impact on the animals you interact with.

Keep your distance from wild animals

Every summer park rangers and other authorities have to deal with tourists who get too close to wildlife, causing a dangerous situation for both the animal and themselves. Especially in today’s age of selfies, it can be tempting to get as near as possible to an animal in order to get that perfect photo for sharing with your friends on social media. This is rarely a good idea and is especially ill-advised when you are dealing with a dangerous animal like a bear, bison, or other large creature. While it’s very rare for any of these species to attack a human unprovoked, they will fight back if they feel threatened by your presence–and they have no way of knowing your intentions are good. Even an animal as seemingly harmless as a deer can inflict serious harm with its hooves or antlers if it feels the need for self-defence.

To take just one relevant example of an animal encounter gone awry, on June 7th, 2018 a woman in Yellowstone was gored by a charging bison when she and other tourists approached within fifteen feet of a herd. Feeling itself to be under threat, one of the animals charged. Fortunately the tourist in question only sustained a hip injury and was able to recover; the consequences could have been much worse. After the incident Yellowstone Park authorities released the following statement: “Animals in Yellowstone are wild and unpredictable, no matter how calm they appear to be. Give animals space when they’re near trails, boardwalks, parking lots, or in developed areas. Always stay at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other animals, including bison and elk.”

Another incident, also involving Yellowstone bison, had more harmful consequences for the animal involved. In 2016 a pair of tourists found a baby bison they believed was close to freezing to death, loaded it in their car, and drove it to a ranger station. While it’s not clear what the actual condition of the animal was when they found it, what is certain is this human interference only made the situation worse. Rangers later had to euthanize the calf because its mother detected a human scent or other signs of people on it, and would not accept it when they tried to return the calf to her.

This underscores an important point: anytime you find a young wild animal, even if you think it has been abandoned or is otherwise suffering, the best course of action is always to leave it alone. If you truly believe an animal in a park needs help you can alert a ranger, but the reality is letting nature take its course will almost certainly be best. Baby animals may appear to be abandoned when in fact their mother is simply looking for food close by. It’s also a fact of the natural world that some wild animals suffer and die from natural causes. In such cases, human interference will just cause more stress and fear for the animal involved.

Store your food properly

Another way you can protect animals from harmful human interference is to properly store your food–as well as any food waste–so as to keep it safe from wildlife. Bears, rodents, and some birds love to feast on people food when they get the chance, but it isn’t good for them and can cause them to develop dangerous habits. Bears who repeatedly encounter human food will learn to seek it out in the future, endangering people and ultimately themselves. Bears who form a habit of approaching tourists for food often end up being euthanized by authorities to protect people from coming to harm.

If you are camping or traveling in bear country, all food and food waste must be stored so bears cannot get at it. If you’re car camping putting all your food in the car at night and whenever your camp is unattended is a good solution. If you backpack or camp in more remote areas, follow food storage guidelines agencies like the Park Service and Forest Service have put in place. Usually this means hanging your food in a tree at night, or storing it in a bear-proof canister specially designed for the purpose. Remember, bears are strong and can easily break open most storage containers.

While bears present the biggest hazard to humans, other animals suffer too when people aren’t careful with their food. Rodents and raccoons can also become overly dependent on human food. One species of bird common in forested mountains–the gray jay–is even known by the nickname “camp robber” because they are so fond of swooping in to snatch unattended leftovers. While you may be tempted to feed wild birds, keep in mind our food is unlikely to be healthy for them. It’s far better for wild animals to subsist only on their natural, wild diets.

Be a good environmental steward

One of the most frequently overlooked ways tourists affect wildlife is the manner in which we treat their habitat. Animals like bears, wolves, bison, and countless smaller species are found in national parks and forests precisely because they don’t do well in areas highly impacted by people. Respect animal habitat by staying on designated trails and pitching your tent in established campsites. When planning a trip to a park, make sure to research the protocols for protecting the landscape park officials have put in place, and always follow them carefully.

Finally, consider the impact your travel itself has on wildlife and their habitat. Every summer demand for gasoline goes up as people drive more–and the carbon emissions from burning all that gas add to climate change. Fortunately, there are many ways to minimize the carbon footprint of your travel. Use a fuel efficient vehicle, make sure your tires are properly inflated, and don’t drive more than you really need to. When you’re at a park, getting out of your car and exploring on foot reduces your impact while providing a much more authentic experience of the place you are visiting.

By keeping a safe distance from wild animals, storing your food properly, and minimizing the environmental footprint of your travel, you can have a memorable summer vacation that brings you into contact with nature without jeopardizing the wildlife who live there. That should be a win-win for any animal lover.

Photo credit: Jack Dykinga

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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