Tuesday, May 27, 2008


This grizzly sow was out for a stroll and ended-up getting harassed by photographers. Her young cub is not visible in the photo as she has already started to retreat from the bear paparazzi. She ended-up crossing the bridge in the background. Note the asterisk and the man in the blue shirt underneath it. He no doubt had to change his undies after turning to find the bear racing towards him (he ducked behind a car which is not visible in the photo and, except for the soiled undergarments, was perfectly fine). Photo by Janine Cairns-Michael.

One year ago this week, Janine and I made our first sojourn to Yellowstone National Park (YSNP). My interest in marine animals had always taken me to tropical reefs instead of terrestrial habitats nearer my home. Since developing a keen interest in grizzly bears four years ago, I have wanted to go to Yellowstone to observe and photograph Ursus arctos. I thought it would be particular interesting to go in the spring, when grizzlies seek out and feed on the carcasses of large ungulates that were done-in by the harsh winter cold. The other thing that was appealing about May was there are fewer people sharing the park at that time.

It turned out our trip was by no means a disappointment when it came to seeing grizzlies. We observed seven grizzlies in the park over a five day period. All of these were observed while traveling the roads through the Lamar Valley and near Fishing Bridge. All of these bears were well behaved (most were hundreds of meters away and some were barely viewable with the naked eye). But while the bears exhibited good manners, some members of my own species exhibited truly appalling decorum.

While I could describe a number of infractions against Yellowstone’s wildlife, instigated by fellow park visitors, the most distressing example of stupid human behavior involved a sow with a cub-of-the-year. On our first full day at YSNP, we hired a guide (The Bearman, Kevin Sanders) to help us find grizzlies to photograph (I was especially interested in getting shots of U. arctos feeding on moribund bison or elk). While making our way over Fishing Bridge, a sow came running along a path by the river and on to the main road. Kevin was appalled when a photographer in a van pressed the female as she began to cross the bridge (that is, he drove very close behind her causing her to move more rapidly). She began to gallop along, leaving her young cub a good distance behind. (The sow also provided some unwanted thrills to a couple that were standing on the bridge, watching the water flow past!) She finally reached the other side of the bridge, at which time she reunited with her cub and they moved away from the road into a meadow. Kevin drove to the other side of the meadow and we viewed the pair from a far. They continued to run for several hundred yards after getting away from the cars and people before their pace slowed.

Kevin left us at around noon and Janine and I began searching for more potential photo subjects. We were driving through a forested area (trees on both sides of the road) when we came across the “bear paparazzi.” I pulled over to see what everyone was looking at and was appalled to find that the cars and their inhabitants had succeeded in separating the same mother grizzly and her small cub on opposite sides of the road! The mother was gone (or at least she was not in view), while the cub ran parallel to the road, some 20 or 30 yards from the mob of photographers. I was told by one of the photogs that the sow had run across the road and left the cub behind. I suggested to a section of the group that we move out of the area and let the nervous cub cross, at which people responded by glaring at me like I was from Uranus! Not a soul moved, they just kept taking photos. I decided not to be a part of this melee and jumped in the car to find Mr. Ranger (normally, YSNP rangers are on the scene anytime a grizzly is near the road and a mob coagulates around it, but in this case, there had not been enough time for the Calvary to arrive). After some time, I did find a ranger, who told me that the problem had been taken care of. After sharing my concerns about what I had just witnessed, he assured me that he had seen a lot worse!

We left Yellowstone a few days later. Upon returning home, I heard on the news about a photographer, Jim Cole, that had been mauled by a sow with cub not far from the area where the mother and its offspring had been harried by the human hoard. I have to wonder if it was not the same bear? Was this sow “on edge” due to the previous day’s incidents and had she finally had enough of the human species? Bears learn very quickly and if they have negative experiences with humans (as that sow had) it is more likely that they will behave aggressively toward a person if approached too closely.

Even so, grizzlies are remarkably tolerant. They have to be when you consider that this incident was the first bear mauling in the Park since September 2005 and that there have only been eight other bear-caused injuries to humans (most minor injuries) since 2000. In fact, the last fatality in YSNP caused by a grizzly attack was in 1986! That is amazing when you think of how many people visit YSNP (as many as 15,000 people visit the park/per day in the summer months) and how many grizzlies are now likely to be encountered by guests, at least in some portions of the park, during certain times of the year. Throw into the mix people that are willing to do anything to get a good photo and you have a recipe for disaster, at least you would if the bears were not rather indulgent creatures.
Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael

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