A poignant Washington Post story about a black bear mourning her 6-month old cub, struck dead by a vehicle in Yosemite National Park, is a reminder that even in wild spaces animals are at risk when they come into contact with humans. Since 1995, motorists have killed more than 400 bears in Yosemite; in 2020 alone, there were 20 such vehicle-induced fatalities.
Part of building a humane society is to take responsibility for ensuring the safety of wildlife and ourselves in the habitats they occupy. As we approach the later stages of summer, it’s especially important for travelers involved in outdoor pursuits to be mindful of wildlife. Late summer is a time when wild animals are active and moving around in their home ranges while foraging for food, traveling as families and even dispersing into new habitat. All of this can bring them into close encounters with people along the millions of miles of roads they must traverse.
Sadly, we’ve seen a number of negative wildlife incidents in the news; for instance, a porpoise who died after being handled by tourists. The unfortunate reality is that even our mere presence can disturb our fellow creatures. A study that looked at 330 peer-reviewed articles over a 38-year period found that there were disturbance and negative effects on wildlife just from human presence and human recreational activities even when they occurred more than a half mile away.
Here are some tips that will help you safely enjoy the great outdoors while minimizing your impact on the natural world.
1. Always give wild animals their space
It happens too often, every year: People move too close to wild animals, thinking that iconic species, like Yellowstone bison, are tame enough to interact with humans and help them land a perfect selfie. They’re not, and this is a bad idea.
Tourist indiscretions are almost always preventable and too frequently endanger people and put animals in jeopardy. When visitors act irresponsibly, it puts more stress on everyone, human and animal. Wildlife rangers and others tasked to ensure appropriate conduct in parks end up being more pressed with the burden of having to keep naïve or careless visitors safe.
Crowding wildlife of all kinds, in parks or in our own backyards, can be extremely dangerous. Many, if not most, interactions with bears, for example, are a result of people neglecting to give the bears the room they need. Crowding a mother bear and her cubs can stress the mom out and close off her escape routes.
Always keep a minimum of 25 yards of distance between yourself and all large animals, like moose, mule deer, mountain lions and coyotes—and at least a football field’s length away from bears and wolves. That’s close enough for a safe look or photograph, and a better approach to ensuring their safety and your own.
2. Educate yourself before heading out
America’s wildlife is not just confined to national and state parks and wildlands. An estimated 432 species of mammals, 800 species of birds, 311 reptile species and 295 amphibian species live in different types of habitat, much of which overlap with our own communities.
Before spending time in the great outdoors, learn about the flora and fauna of the areas you’re going to see. This will not only deepen your experience but will help you keep safe and reduce negative effects on wildlife you may encounter. For instance, learn to identify sensitive nesting areas for birds and turtles, and make yourself aware of the venomous animals in the area so that you can keep a respectful and safe distance.
If your voyage involves taking to the open road, it’s important to keep a close watch for wildlife, and be prepared to safely help wildlife on the roadside. Learn to identify signs that a wild animal does indeed need help, to avoid interfering where your help isn’t actually needed. Know when and how to call a professional: Here’s how to find a wildlife rehabilitator for animals who do need attention.
3. In case anyone needs to hear it again: Trash is very bad
The number one source of conflict with wildlife is garbage. Food scraps attract all kinds of animals, from small mice to raccoons and skunks to large bears. When animals become habituated to close contact with people, it rarely ends well for them. Wild animals end up being euthanized or shot, when just a little more human care and responsibility could have made a difference.
Above all, safe trash management can prevent a bad situation from developing. When camping or renting cabins in the woods, make sure to determine where you can best store, hang or dispose of trash. Among other benefits, keeping trash away from prying claws can protect raccoons and skunks who are prone to getting their heads stuck in food containers.
4. Take special care with companion animals on your trips
For many people, companion animals are part of the family—and so a family trip will certainly include them. But bringing your furry family member along requires deliberate preparation for their needs, and some trips may be better suited for human family members alone. The key to traveling with pets is planning ahead.
On hikes with pets, look to avoid iffy situations in which your pet (and you) might encounter unpredictable wild animals. Keep companion animals on a leash that’s six feet long or less for the sake of their safety and that of the wild animals they might be tempted to chase. Remember that freshwater and brackish water habitats in some parts of the U.S. are homes to alligators, so it may not be safe for pets to swim there. Also, make sure to plan for their needs on the trail; bring water for them to drink and baggies so you can pick up after them and practice leave-no-trace ethics, which is good for the ecosystem and respectful of fellow hikers.
Learn about any restrictions or risks involving companion animals at your intended destination. Lack of planning may lead to a stressful and inconvenient situation or a last-minute need for alternative lodging. Also, consider your method of travel and take the necessary steps for traveling safely with pets in planes, trains or automobiles.
5. Visit a lesser known national or state park
This summer travel season has proven to be a busy one. While it’s inspiring that so many people want to enjoy and admire nature across the U.S., some national parks have experienced significant crowding. One way you can help avoid overstressing the wild animals in their homes is to visit a less populated park. This shouldn’t be difficult, considering the National Park Service manages some 423 individual units including wild and scenic areas monuments and national seashores, lakeshores and trails, covering more than 85 million acres across the country. Plus, there are 6,792 beautiful state parks across the U.S. Consider the less populated and still amazing parks that are not on the top 10 most visited list—you will find fewer people and improve your chances of memorable encounters in nature.
The creation of a humane world involves more than simply confronting active cruelty and campaigning to stop it in all its forms. It also involves nurturing a heightened sensibility concerning the needs of wild animals in their habitats, a respect for their wild nature and a stronger commitment to safe behavior and policies that are good for us all.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.