Ah, spring: The bloom of flowers, the song of birds, the paranoia of the National Park Service. I have come to expect it just as I expect muddy boots at the door and crowded pews at Easter: If you live in the same part of the world as Glacier or Yellowstone national parks, you will hear the annual Bear Report on the radio or newspapers, thanks to a government news release.
The chipper voice of a National Park Service official goes like this: “Just a friendly warning that the grizzly bears are emerging from their dens. Be extra careful when you visit your local national park.”
This year, my local park flack warned that male bears would awaken “grumpy” and mother bears would “ferociously defend” their cubs. Now, National Park Service public information officers are hard-working public servants. I only wish them well. But I think they could save themselves -- and the bears -- some trouble if they put a swift end to this annual rite of spring.
First off, I have to wonder: This is news? Bears have emerged from their dens every year for tens of thousands of years. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about any of this. Why not issue a news release about the first trillium blooming or the wolverines chowing down on winterkill? Of course, the annual bear news release is newsworthy, simply because it involves bears and the press gobbles it up like a basket full of jellybeans.
Why must grizzlies hog the press? How about spreading the love and giving black bears, marmots, ground squirrels and other hibernators a moment in the spotlight? Or how about some ink for the migrators? A news release about the first call note of a varied thrush back from Central America would be nice.
Perhaps the National Park Service believes it is doing a public service by warning of a danger in the woods that, a few weeks ago, was snoring soundly underground. If so, please spare me.
It turns out, when it comes to natural hazards, that bears are pretty low on the list in Western national parks. Bears just grab the headlines, the lip service and the warning signs. In Yellowstone, for example, about as many visitors -- five -- have been killed by falling trees as angry bears. Seasonally speaking, springtime hazards such as avalanches and hypothermia claim more lives than bears do.
In Glacier Park, cold running water that turns people hypothermic kills vastly more visitors than bears do. I have tramped all over Glacier and have had my life threatened far more times by water than by all wild mammals combined.
Yet, I’m sure I have received at least 100 ranger warnings about danger in bear country for every warning I’ve received about the perils of cold, rushing water. Rangers would save a lot more lives if they lectured folks on lifejackets and issued press releases about spring runoff. Better yet, they could remind motorists to slow down, as cars are much more deadly than grizzlies.
Perhaps park officials believe they are doing the bears a favor by warning hapless tourists that the animals are out and about. But I think they may be reinforcing an unintended -- and counterproductive – message of bear-anoia.
The problem with incessantly warning people about bears is that it intends to inflate the perception of danger posed by wild animals and wilderness. Statistically speaking, hiking and horseback riding in bear country is a safe activity. Not perfectly safe, of course, because no one would want that anyway. We live in a world where people are increasingly afraid to explore nature or allow their kids to explore nature. I have seen park visitors literally refuse to leave their cars out of fear of bears, mountain lions or other wildlife. Once I finish laughing, it leaves me profoundly sad.
So go out there. Sniff a trillium. Look for a wolverine. Spring is a great time to enjoy your national parks.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Kalispell, Montana.