This summer in Yellowstone National Park, on two separate occasions, two men sadly lost their lives from deadly encounters with grizzly bears. Both of these men did not carry bear pepper spray, and if they would have, they would likely still be alive. As autumn approaches and the leaves begin to change, its time to look at some other changes that will prevent the brutal loss of life that Yellowstone has experienced this year.
This fall, 50% of the white bark pine population will no longer exist when grizzly bears venture to the high country to eat their pine nuts, a result of global climate change. They will likely adapt, forced from desperation, and will find another suitable food source, passing that on to generations to come. Such seasonal feeding behaviors have nothing to do with instincts; these behaviors are taught, from mother bear to cubs. Grizzly bears are a super intelligent animal. Much smarter than a dog, they follow only primates and delphinidae (dolphins and orcas) when it comes to brainpower. Simple conditioning is easy for them, and I have watched wild grizzly bears make decisions and behavioral changes that transition into new day-to-day habits, simply in order to survive.
In the wake of the latest deaths in Yellowstone National Park, I propose an imperfect solution. It will take a simple adaptation from the human side of the equation, and the end result will be a dramatic change on the behalf of the bears' behavior. I will call it the skunk effect. When you see a skunk, do you go over and rub it behind the ears? Absolutely not! The idea seems ridiculous, and for good reason. We have all learned, through centuries of passed down knowledge and often entertaining stories, that we will end up stinking horribly from the encounter, mixing up tomato juice or some other concoction to rid ourselves of the odor. The skunk has evolved a genius defense mechanism, the ability to express its anal glands at quite a distance. This action fends off ANY unwanted interaction, and has deemed this little mammal one of the most successful in North America. In effort to coexist, it is time for us to recognize and recreate the unmistakable defense mechanism that works so well for the skunk.
We have the potential like no other animal to adapt and change, invent and utilize tools, and we have the perfect tool already in our arsenal, bear pepper spray. Like a can of mace on steroids, bear pepper spray can shoot a potent pepper cloud 35 feet. If we ALL carried this into bear country, knew how to use it and when, we could cause a behavioral evolution between human and bear that will last forever. If it was mandatory for everyone to carry bear pepper spray while hiking in bear country, the likelihood of fatal bear maulings would decrease drastically. It is as logical as wearing a seat belt while driving. Every time a bear approaches within our comfort bubble, we let them have it. This non-lethal spray makes contact with the bears mucous membranes and causes an unbelievable blinding pain, like hot pokers in the eyes, combined with a desperate choking feeling like breathing in flames. When a bear faces these debilitating challenges, all it wants to do is escape, and nearly always chooses flight over fight. After about an hour, the bear has recovered fully on the outside, and you have safely exited the area. But for the bear, you have made a deep impression on the inside, the skunk effect. Next time that bear sees a human, it will look at that 2-legged creature much the way we look at the black and white creature. It will remember the encounter, and through simple adverse conditioning, get out of the way.
If that individual bear is a female, she can pass this very knowledge on to generations of cubs, building a respect that will result in less violent encounters. The argument that fear needs to be placed back into these animals by hunting them with firearms loses its validity here. A dead bear can not pass on this learned behavior, but in the case of the bear pepper spray, the idea of attacking a human will seem like a bad choice, and that behavior can be passed on.
We have forced most animals in the world to adapt to their threshold. Now it is our turn to do our part. Through simple thought and innovation, education and application, we can save the lives of bears and humans alike. If we want to share this earth with the wild things we love, we must change. It is time to coexist, and hold up our side of that bargain.
More information about bear pepper spray can be found here and in the clip below.
This September, look for Casey's book, "The Story of Brutus: My Life with Brutus the Bear and the Grizzlies of North America" just released in paperback.
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