Happened across this fascinating article about predatory bears at backpackinglight.com. It talks about how bears are losing their fear of humans and that camping with “bear proof” containers could be counterproductive.

California wilderness parks make for good case studies of controversial bear management practices. The storage of food in so-called bear-proof containers (while the hiker is encouraged to sit back 50 yards or more and be patient) trains bears to be persistent and further habituated to the odors of human food. YOSE officials believe that keeping your distance will result in a lack of human habituation – an interesting notion considering that the scent of a human – and its food – dominates a bear canister and its hiding location. Through generations of so called “no-reward” training (somewhat of a fallacy, in light of the fact that all food storage systems have been known to fail at some level), our bear canisters may unknowingly be contributing to the habituation of bears to human presence. When bears are no longer threatened by humans – or their food storage devices – the risk of predation may increase. Are YOSE and SEKI time bombs for bear predation? California bears already recognize cars and coolers as food sources. An increasing number of reports suggest that backcountry bears know darn well what’s in food canisters. Is it simply a matter of time before a shift in the fragile ecological balance of California’s wilderness results in a dramatic food shortage that sends bears searching for humans…as food?

Back when I was in Boy Scouts we used to hear tales from the grownups of seeing backpackers in the high country out West who were carrying Dirty Harry-style pistols in holsters to fend off bears. These days the parks managers insist on leaving the shooting to the professionals, but there is a downside to people in the backcountry essentially disarming themselves: they give up their role as alpha predator in the ecosystem, which upsets the balance.

Humans pose the greatest threat to virtually every other animal species — we’re smarter and more ruthless probably than the rest of ’em combined. Even kings of beasts like grizzlies and lions need to fear us, because we can wipe ’em out on a whim. They’re tough but they can’t manufacture firearms. The mere scent of a human should send ’em fleeing.

The problem now is that just as bears don’t know what to do about people, people don’t know what do do about bears. Will electric fences keep them away? Will bear spray offer enough negative training to wild bears? Would we want backpackers carrying weapons into the wilderness (this seems so obviously to be “”NO!” that it’s hardly worth mention, but if you were facing down a hungry predatory bear, how thankful for a no-firearms policy would you be?)

I picked up that bit about alpha predators in a New Yorker article a few months back. It talked about how a researcher traveling with indigenous tribesmen in Africa (I believe they may have been Pygmies) witnessed the most amazing interaction between the hunting tribesmen and a pride of lions feeding at kill. The tribesmen walked right up to the kill and dragged it away — the lions were snarling and growling, but they kept their distance and did not challenge the tribesmen’s status as alpha predators. It proved the point that humans and big, mean predators could presumably share the same range, so long as everybody knows who’s in charge (and it’s especially incumbent on the alpha predators themselves not to screw up the balance).

Of course, the whole notion of recognizing humans as the top of the food chain is just enough knowledge to get you into trouble and not enough to get you out of it. Once humans adapted to tool-making, they started losing the skills that kept ’em alive among lions and bears for the previous 50,000 years. We don’t have tribal elders to pass that kind of knowledge along anymore.

All scary stories aside, most people will never see a bear in the backcountry, and most bears will avoid people (though they will try to steal our picnic baskets). At some point we’ll figure out how we all got along and adapt the methods our ancestors forgot not long after they ruined everything by inventing agriculture (you can look it up: it’s been downhill for planet earth ever since).