Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Way more than three little bears…

One of the things we did last fall when we went up to Voyageur’s, was to go to the Vincent Shute Bear Sanctuary in Orr. The Sanctuary opens at five in the evening—we arrived early and waited at the gate. After driving to the parking lot, paying our admission and looking at the inevitable gift shop (it supports the mission of the sanctuary), we loaded onto an old school bus to be brought to the viewing area. For my kids it was a weird experience: my oldest stopped attending public school in fourth grade, my oldest son stopped in preschool, and my youngest has never attended a public school. They ran to the back and we listened to the guides—many from Australia and New Zealand, explaining behavior of the bears.

The buses transport the people to an “inner sanctum” where bears are fed. While the bus is driving to the viewing platform, if a bear approaches a bus, the driver will blow the horn and people will yell and shout. This is to help the bears to not associate humans with food. When bears become used to humans and associate us with food is a bad thing—when they begin habitually coming towards people, often they will be put down. It really is a bad thing.

I understand what the sanctuary is trying to do—create a safe place for bears to be. However, I was a little disturbed to see the food placed out in such piles and I was concerned that they are not foraging enough. The staff did say that bears come and go so they aren’t dependent on the people and that is a good thing. The other concern I had was that a staff member was explaining that when the bears hibernate the females are growing with cubs. A female bear naturally regulates the number of cubs she has by the success she had in finding food that previous summer. More food=more babies. Normally, a mom will have one—maybe two cubs. Three isn’t unheard of, but it is unusual. A few of the bears had four cubs last spring. That is very unusual and I had to wonder if it correlated with the human provided food sources. Is it a good thing to inflate the bear population? I don’t have the answers to those questions.

While I had my concerns—I get that the bears really do need to have some space that is truly their own. Humans are scared of wolves and bears, yet we keep encroaching on their territory. I think the sanctuary is a great place to educate people on bear behavior. Bears—as cute and cuddly as they appear are not our friends or pets. A bear that is friendly to people is a dead bear; it will have to be put down because people have taught it to not fear us.

People have been told both to play dead and scream and holler if surprised by a bear. However, the advice seems to be leaning towards a common sense approach: speaking calmly and backing away slowly allows the bear to identify that you are not their usual dinner fare and keeps from startling and becoming agitated. I think if you are going to be in bear country, learning more on bear safety is crucial, but it is also imperative to understand bear attacks are extremely rare. I also think if planning a camping trip, it is critical that people put their food in lockers or way up and out on a tree limb. Animals absolutely know campgrounds are a source of food and that is bad. It is annoying if a raccoon gets to your bread—it is dangerous if a bear smells food in your tent. NEVER eat in your tent. Avoid cooking in the clothes you will wear to bed. Dispose of your refuse in a locked trash bin. We did burn some of our leftover food in the fire—but we were very aware of our neighbors (or lack thereof) so any smell wouldn’t bother them. Bears here have not learned what they have in Yellowstone—it is still safe to keep food in your vehicle.

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