Don't trust everything you see

  • Too close for safety in Yellowstone National Park

    Chuck Bartlebaugh photo
  • Tourists face off with a bear

    Chuck Bartlebaugh photo
  • Wildlife photographer Chuck Bartlebaugh in the field

    Chuck Bartlebaugh photo

MISSOULA, Mont. - A few years ago, Chuck Bartlebaugh photographed a young girl in Yellowstone National Park, standing about 10 feet in front of a bull elk whose head was submerged in the tall grass. The girl stood with her back to the elk, facing away from the camera.

The girl's mother noticed Bartlebaugh, and asked if he would take another shot if her daughter went back to the elk and smiled toward the camera.

"I can't encourage you to do that," Bartlebaugh answered.

"Why not?" the woman asked.

"Because I'm trying to get a photograph of someone being gored."

Outraged, the woman reported Bartlebaugh to the park authorities, but they were already familiar with his work.

"Chuck helps us out a lot, developing brochures that educate people about wildlife," says Kerry Gunther, a bear-management specialist at Yellowstone.

An adrenaline junkie learns a lesson

Bartlebaugh is the founder and director of the Center for Wildlife Information, based in Missoula. According to the center's literature, its goal is to "inform the next generation about how to safely and responsibly enjoy our wildlife and wildland treasures, especially bears."

Bartlebaugh wasn't always such a conscientious conservationist. Up until the late 1970s, he raced Indy cars on tracks throughout the country. After he retired, he searched for an occupation that would be as stimulating.

"Without the risk-taking activity for two years, I was going bonkers," he says.

Bartlebaugh had no experience with either wildlife biology or f-stops, but he decided to become a professional grizzly bear photographer. Armed with new camera gear and sporting a photographer's getup from Eddie Bauer, Bartlebaugh headed to Yellowstone.

"I didn't understand where I was coming from at the time," Bartlebaugh says. "It was all self-centered ego. I had no interest in the bear, other than that the animal would get me attention."

Fortunately, a bartender in Cooke City got to Bartlebaugh before a bear did. "The last thing we need is another asshole with a camera getting killed," the bartender told him. He then introduced Bartlebaugh to the local forest ranger, who took him in hand.

The first thing the ranger had Bartlebaugh do was to change into blue jeans. Then he took the aspiring photographer into the backcountry to teach him about bears - but without the camera.

What not to do

Eighteen years later, Bartlebaugh is educating photographers and tourists alike on how to interact with animals in a way that will protect both the critters and themselves. Part of his job, he says, is getting pictures of people doing stupid things, such as posing for pictures next to wild animals.

"I'm sure the elk (that the girl posed next to) never even saw her," Bartlebaugh said. "If it had looked up, it might have reacted by running her over. And some people would have blamed the animal for simply trying to get away."

Up to $100 million a year is spent on misinformation about wildlife through the media, Bartlebaugh says. That includes television programs and wildlife documentaries, advertisements and news stories.

Even conservation groups are guilty, he says. As an example, he points out in Sierra magazine's March/April issue, the lead story features Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns, amateur naturalists who are studying "human/bear trust" with brown bears in Kamchatka, Russia. Whenever the couple encounters a bear, they coo loving words to it, rather than making noise and avoiding bears as people are instructed to do with grizzlies in Montana.

But the story is full of holes, says Bartlebaugh. The story mistakenly identifies the bears as grizzlies. Ursus horribilis doesn't live in Asia. And unlike the Lower 48, Kamchatka is a bear Eden, rife with natural food opportunities, says Bartlebaugh. As in the salmon spawning grounds of Alaska, bears have learned to tolerate human presence.

A handsome photo layout that accompanies the story shows three orphan cubs that often accompany the couple. In one photo, Charlie Russell is pictured napping with the bears, resting his head on one cub's rump. Those pictures should never have been published, says Chuck Jonkel, a bear biologist and an ally of Bartlebaugh.

"The photos show all this close contact with the cubs," he says. "People are going to cut out those pictures and put them on the walls in schools. People who see the photos won't see the text that goes with them saying, "Hey, don't ever do this." It teaches people the wrong thing. Even people who get the magazine often don't read the story or captions."

Keep your camera to yourself

Bartlebaugh thinks photographers should forgo the chase for the perfect wildlife shot out of respect for the animal's well-being. "When animals become habituated to humans, they change their behavior and stop exhibiting warning signs, until it's often too late for a person to avoid a disaster," he says.

When a deer flicks its tail or a bison paws the ground, it is sign of stress and nearby people should quickly back off. But if animals get used to being close to humans, they may not give the warning sign until a person is standing right next to them. Then a quick jump or head butt could be lethal.

People think the value of wildlife is for our entertainment, Bartlebaugh says. "People are expecting to interact with wildlife. We can set aside acre after acre of habitat for the grizzlies, but if someone walks in there with a cookie that draws the bear out - we've lost a lot."

Mark Matthews writes from Hot Springs, Montana.

You can contact ...

* Chuck Bartlebaugh with the Center for Wildlife Information at 406/721-8985.

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