This one is for all you people who don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to photographing bears and other wild animals.
No, this is not a photography-how-to.
This is a wildlife etiquette issue.
Everyone wants that amazing and perfect close-up of a bear in the wild, but is that photo worth your life? Or a bears? A bear that becomes overly comfortable with humans, or with humans feeding it, is almost guaranteed to end up dead at the hands of humans, either having to be put down because it sees humans as a food source, or dead due to road mortality because it doesn’t see cars as a threat, or people are driving like jerks around it.
Over the years, working for Parks and now as a guide in the Rockies, I have seen some seriously crazy stuff. People genuinely do not seem to realize that wildlife is…wild. You can’t walk up a wild animal like its a neighborhood dog. And sure, maybe the person before you did it, and they were fine. Maybe you can do it too, this one time. But its always okay, right until it isn’t. Then the next thing you know, there is a story on the news of a ‘bear attack’ and everyone calls it a tragic accident.
The truth is, most negative wildlife encounters are completely avoidable. Respecting an animals personal space and making noise so as not to surprise them
(and no! I do not mean bear bells) will help stop most negative encounters.
Most professional or seasoned wildlife photographers that I have met are incredibly ethical in how they photograph wildlife; they know the best practices and they stick to them. These people tend to love the wildlife that they are photographing and would not do anything to put it, or themselves at risk. They also understand the risks, so they are able to avoid them. So many people just have no idea what they are getting into when they approach wildlife, so I have created a list of common ‘Best Practices’ for photographing or viewing wildlife.
1. Stay in your vehicle.
If you are driving and you see an animal roadside, then its simple: Stay in your vehicle. Things start to go wrong when people start to view the wildlife as tame animals. Just because the bear is on the side of the road, and seems more interested in food than you, does not make it okay to get out and approach it.
2. Do not cause a bear jam.
Or a deer jam, or a squirrel jam or any sort of traffic jam for whatever it is that you see. If you see wildlife, and you are going to stop for a better look, then pull over on the shoulder of the road as far as you safely can. If you cannot safely pull over and get off the road, then you don’t stop. Its that simple.
3. Do not harass the wildlife.
Do not stay by an animal for more than a minute or two (refer to #2). The bears do not enjoy having vehicles stop by them and stay there for an extended period of time. If you are going to stop and can safely do so, then stop for a minute or two, snap your photos, admire the animal and be on your way. We do not want animals to become accustomed to humans, because in the long term, that is how they end up dead.
4. Do not bait the wildlife.
On this point, most people are probably thinking ‘Well obviously!’ But a lot of people are unintentionally ‘baiting’ wildlife through simple carelessness. Do you know how many common camping items are actually considered bear or wildlife attractants? Things like: toothpaste, shampoo, soap, cooking oil, canned goods, alcohol, freeze dried foods, pet foods, dirty dishes, the clothes you cooked/ate in, etc. By leaving these things out and unattended in day use areas or campsites, you are inviting wildlife into your site. If you intentionally bait wildlife, then you are an a$$hole. A fed bear is a dead bear. And no photo is worth a bears life.
5. Do not feed the wildlife.
Any of it. Not even that cute squirrel or bird. Have you ever fed a squirrel or chipmunk and noticed that they are taking a lot of food? Like more than their own body weight in food? They are not eating it all, they are caching it around your site, creating little hidden treasures of food that will attract other animals to the area.
6. Do not touch the wildlife.
By now, everyone has probably heard about the well-meaning tourist in Yellowstone who picked up the bison calf because he ‘thought it looked cold.’ Do not assume that baby animals who appear to be left alone, are abandoned. Mothers in nature know whats best for their young and it is not our job to interfere. Do not pick up wild animals, if you are concerned that something has been abandoned, or is injured, report it to your local conservation officers, park staff or fish and wildlife officers. You can find these numbers online for your local area.
7. Use a long lens.
Do not expect to get a great close up photo with your smart phone. Don’t even try to do it. Use a zoom lens, or take the photo and crop it down after. Approaching wildlife with a smart phone to get a close up photo is the dumbest thing you can do (other than Pokemon Go, but that’s a different story).
So what do you do if you come across a bear on the trail or on the roadside? You should call it in to your local wildlife hotline. Google to find your local wildlife authority or parks service. If you call in a report, you are going to be asked for some basic info. Here are some things that you will probably be asked:
- Your name and contact number
- Type of Bear (black or grizzly, remember not all black bears are black!)
- Location – try to get as many landmarks as possible, signs, intersections, etc
- What the bear was doing
- How long ago you saw it
- If the bear was eating, what it was eating.
- How close you were to the bear
- How it reacted (surprised, aggressive, indifferent, curious, etc)
- Visible tags or collars (note numbers on tags and color of tag if possible)
- If there were cubs, how many?
- If it was roadside, were other people stopped/getting out of vehicles
This information is used for biologists to track bears and behavior and also used to dispatch conservation officers to help move bears along and stop human-bear conflicts. If you see a conservation officer or parks employee on scene, then do not report it. The person on scene is there because someone else has reported it/they are already aware of the situation so you do not need to create duplicate calls.
I love bears, and all wild animals. I have lived in bear country for the last 7 years. I hate seeing animals need to be put down because of human stupidity. People visit the mountains because they want to enjoy the landscape and the wildlife, so if everybody would do their part to be here and respect nature, than we can ensure that these places are here and protected forever and that future generations will get to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.