The Wasatch Behind: Bothered by the bears
Last week, news that a bear had killed a little boy in American Fork Canyon was shocking. We don't expect such things in our modern world. My sympathies are with the family. I also have compassion for the fish and wildlife people who are being blamed for not taking care of "their" bear.
Conflicts between predators and humans are becoming more frequent. We hear of joggers attacked by cougars, campers and fishermen attacked by bears, and little kids and domestic pets attacked by coyotes. My son Allen was attacked by a mountain lion near Joe's Valley in 2005 and is lucky to be alive.
There are several reasons for the conflicts. First, people are encroaching more and more into the backcountry. Human populations are exploding and we are building subdivisions, luxury homes, shopping malls, and campgrounds where the deer and the antelope used to play. At the same time, deer numbers have dropped dramatically due to predators, highways, and loss of habitat. The number of deer permits issued to humans has dropped by more than half during the past several years, so it's not deer hunters who are killing all of the deer.
And at the same time their habitat and food supply is shrinking, predator populations are skyrocketing. There are more predators today because bear and cougar hunting has been severely restricted in recent years. The state bowed to pressure from animal rights and environmental groups and allowed the number of predators to increase dramatically. We are beginning to reap the consequences of those decisions.
Predators are competing for territories in an overcrowded environment with dwindling resources. Some are being pushed into town or into campgrounds to forage for garbage to survive. Close contact with humans makes them less afraid, and even aggressive. And at the same time, some people are fighting to re-introduce wolves into the mix. Just what we need, another alpha predator to stalk our campgrounds, jogging trails, and backyards. Got any Boy Scouts you want to get rid of? Vote to re-introduce wolves.
So what can we do? The easiest solution is to pack a gun. I learned to do that after accidentally walking up on a bear and a cub in Dugout Canyon several years ago. The old .45 has been a part of my outdoor wardrobe ever since.
Another thing we could do is to close all of the campgrounds and surrender to the predators. We could declare the whole state a wilderness area and designate all predators as endangered species. We could close the backcountry as critical habitat for cougars and bears and let them have it all.
Or, we could go back to the old days and declare open season. It used to be legal to shoot predators on sight. We could let deer hunters buy a bear or lion tag with their hunting license. I vote for that solution.
Whatever we do, we've got to educate young campers and backpackers about the dangers of predators in the wilderness. School kids are being taught that predators are warm and fuzzy and all wild animals are friends and they help each other out. If only people wouldn't litter, cut down trees, and make roads in the wilderness, we could live in harmony with the bears and they would be our friends.
Sadly, many young people believe it. Our kids have grown up with the likes of Grizzly Adams, where man and bear share a rug in front of the fire and "understand" each other. They've watched countless TV shows where cute little lion cubs cuddle and purr, and they've been spoon-fed movies like Dances With Wolves. No wonder we hear of goofy people climbing into tiger cages at the zoo to pet the cats.
Reality is a little more sobering. Predators are not our friends and never have been. The following is a clip from the Emery County Progress, from 1901.
"RK Kello and a party of surveyors while locating oil lands in the hills near Sunnyside were attacked by a large number of bears one night last week. The men had retired and the wild beasts pounced upon the tents and tore the canvas to pieces. Amos E. Petersen was badly hurt in the fight with the bears. Later the bears attacked a herd of sheep killing fifty."
Slowly the pendulum swings. Maybe our grandfathers knew what they were doing when they nearly eradicated bears and lions a century ago. Maybe it's time to do it again.