To be “Bear Aware” has come to mean different things to different people and different communities, which is why I am not always a fan of choosing such phrasiology. At it’s most fundamental level “Bear Awareness” emphasizes a commitment to keeping bears wild. It suggests a certain stewardship of these iconic species, a respect for them and the wild places they call home. But in practicality, “Bear Awareness” implies that one is cognizant of bear safety–being safe in bear country.
Every spring, hikers, and campers and others seeking recreational pursuits, pledge to be “Bear Aware.” In other words, they pledge to reduce opportunities to invite negative human-bear interactions or conflict with bears when traveling in bear country. This inherently suggests adopting bear safety tactics while exploring and enjoying the great outdoors.
At the community level “Bear Awareness” may be less about personal safety and more about adopting strategies to eliminate or control attractants that draw bears into urban areas. Both definitions are appropriate, but it is important to make the distinction, albeit subtle. All of these issues warrant attention in areas where bears and people coexist, but it very much helps to know the audience before launching a “Bear Awareness” campaign. People are eager to listen and learn about “Bear Awareness,” but the instruction must really be relevant.
Part of my role as a member of the Anchorage Bear Committee and as the Chair of the Conservation Education Committee for the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA) is to develop “Bear Awareness” initiatives that cater to both specific communities and demographics of individuals who live in the company of bears.
In Anchorage, for example, Elizabeth Manning, a wildlife educator with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game presides over the Anchorage Bear Committee Education Group. Much of her role and focus is on coordinating “Bear Aware” education programs that serve to disseminate information for the individual on bear safety. Campaigns are aimed at keeping both the individual and the bears safe while in bear country.
This year, Alaska’s Governor, Sean Parnell, proclaimed the month of April “Bear Awareness” month:
“NOW, THEREFORE, I, Sean Parnell, Governor of the State of Alaska, do hereby proclaim April 2012 as:
-Bear Awareness Month-
in Alaska, and encourage all Alaskans to educate themselves on the importance of awareness and safety issues surrounding Alaska’s bears and wildlife, thereby helping to ensure the future of our Alaskan wildlife heritage.”
Anchorage’s Alaska Zoo will hold their annual “Bear Awareness” day and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center will host the inaugural “Bear Awareness” week in conjunction with the city of Girdwood. Both events are endorsed by the Anchorage Bear Committee Education Group. And the events target different types of communities. One uniquely caters to people who live in the only metropolitan region in the United States where brown bears live in such close proximity to people. The other, although within the Anchorage Municipality, is more or less a rural community, which faces different problems regarding human-bear interactions.
I, personally, hope to help make a measurable impact on my own community and help others around the world where bear-human interactions often lead to conflict. For now, during the month of April, I will focus on issues here at home in Alaska.
I’m also pleased to announce that the IBA Conservation Education Committee (CEC) will soon launch a web page on the IBA website, which will include resources relevant to “Bear Awareness” and “Bear Safety.”
As I drove down the Seward highway the other day, from my home in Girdwood to work, I could see ravens hovering just off the side of the rode. I could just make out a lone coyote sitting on the ice-covered estuary about 300 meters from a couple bald eagles in the foreground. I couldn’t see what attracted them, but I suspected it was a carcass of a moose or what was left of one. I didn’t see any sign of bear.
The Portage Valley is, however, home to brown and black bears and I knew they were soon to wake up after a long winter’s dormancy. Because of heavy snow cover this year, brown bears will likely emerge from their dens later than black bears, which typically overwinter at lower elevations where less snow accumulates. Sometimes brown bears may select or excavate den sites that are more characteristic of what a black bear may choose to overwinter in and vice verses. Regardless, of when or where they emerge, they are hungry.
As I pulled over to watch the scavengers as they arrived in a timely fashion and in succession, it occurred to me that stopping and getting out of my car would not be acting terribly responsible. Bears are waking up and what are they likely to feed on are winter-killed ungulate carcasses, particularly after a winter like we had this year. If you think a grizzly sow defends her young with some vigor, just wait until you see a grizzly bear defend a winter-killed moose carcass. Either scenario places a human bystander in great danger.
As bears begin to wake up, please be respectful of them and of all wildlife and stay safe.