Sunday, July 15, 2012

Arizona Attacks and the Face of Bear Management

By now, everyone is no doubt very familiar with the alarming rash of black bear attacks in the mountains of Arizona throughout the month of June. Two of the attacks involved people in tents, another a man in a partially-finished cabin, and the other, most disturbingly, in a condominium parking lot. The offending bears (or what is believed to be the offending bears) were destroyed without prior confirmation that they were responsible for the attacks. This is a shocking number of incidents in such a short period of time and is more similar to the Yellowstone bear attacks of 2010. Those tragedies were caused by the loss of the whitebark pines and the nuts they produce, which are a major source of protein for grizzlies. Could something similar have caused the Arizona attacks?

Jim Paxon, Information Branch Chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, told me in an e-mail that the Southwest has been ravaged by extreme drought and that has resulted in a dearth of natural bear foods. So much so that even the normally shy and reclusive black bears have resorted to such drastic measures as tent raiding and bullying. Fortunately, the attacks did not seem to be predatory and were apparently stopped before reaching that level. But with the bears at these critical stages of desperation (and the Yellowstone grizzlies in a similar boat), it's time to seriously re-evaluate some of our bear management techniques and start seriously enforcing that visitors to bear country take the proper precautions. I feel that it should be mandatory for campers to carry and erect electric fences around their campsite and that recreationists who do not keep a clean and orderly site should be asked to pack up and leave. I also feel that hikers should be required to carry at least two cans of bear spray at all times and that proper training on their usage be given by park rangers. Some may dislike the idea of such rules but with the lack of natural food sources, the lack of proper safety techniques will only lead to more injuries and deaths.

Supplemental feeding must also be considered as a viable option. I forwarded some information on the topic to Mr. Paxon and asked him to consider it in the future. To my surprise and delight, he was intrigued by the idea and said that he would share it for consideration among the other bear managers. The only potential problem is that the execution of a feeding program will likely require more manpower than the department is staffed for. Even so, it's exciting to speak to a government bear manager who's actually receptive to the idea and sees the value in it. We need others with that mindset, because the days of sloppy bear management are going to have to come to an end.

Speaking of bad bear management, I posted several months ago about the night of the grizzlies incident and the strange connection I have long felt to the victims of that tragic night. I will soon have the opportunity to spend some time in Glacier National Park and will be there on the 45th anniversary of the attacks. I plan to visit both sites while there and pay my own respects. I'm told by some who work in the park that a large number of people visit the sites each August for the same reason. Most astonishing is the large number of hits I get on this blog due to internet searches related to the incident and the two girls (sometimes almost a dozen per day), so whatever hold that night has on me, I'm certainly not the only one in its grip. I don't know if being there will make that mystery any clearer, but I know it's something I have to do. That experience will be the subject of future writings: an article, blog updates, and a book that I will be starting on later this year. I've tried getting the book underway several times, but I always get the feeling that I should wait...and now I know it's because this experience must come first. Only afterwards will the words be there.

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