By Sona Mason, West Hudson Program Coordinator
Backpacking in the Western States is quite an eye-opening experience when it comes to the topic of bears. Here in the East, we’re almost apologetic to the public about nuisance bears—entire parks are closed and bears are euthanized out of an “overabundance of safety.” But out West, when a problem bear has to be put down, it’s the public’s fault.
Signage on Western kiosks, maps, visitor centers, and almost any sign related to trails and park boundaries makes it unequivocally clear that bothering humans for food is a learned behavior, one taught to bears by humans who dispose of high-calorie morsels alongside campsites or trails instead of trekking their waste out, or–god forbid–by tempting bears closer with food. Whether this is out of a misplaced need for excitement or “bear selfies” or both, our poor behavior on the trails is detrimental to these animals.
Our human scent is all over the food and garbage we leave out or throw away, and since animals operate in a world of smell, the association is a no-brainer for calorie-hunters such as bears: humans = food source. Here in the East, with development continually encroaching into wild habitat, thus removing more of these animals’ natural food sources, it would seem inevitable that bears would come sniffing around our garbage cans, which represent a veritable supermarket of deliciousness that would never occur naturally in the forest. It is therefore even more imperative that homeowners adjacent to woodlands lock up their garbage securely. So, too, when hikers and other human forest users bring food into the woods: Pack a plastic or paper bag, and carry out your trash. Wild animals learn to spend their energy elsewhere when unsuccessful at raiding trash–or campsites.
Perhaps our signage needs to be more visible and compelling, placing the blame for nuisance bears squarely on the shoulders of the general public. It worked for me when backpacking in the West recently. The internal discomfort generated by signs that placed responsibility for a wild creature’s needless death compelled me, even when tired, to do the responsible thing and not leave delicious-smelling wrappers, cores, leftovers, and even toothpaste out in the woods to “decompose naturally.” Perhaps we should guilt ourselves on this coast, too.