The first night after summer solstice, I went on an undercover garbage collecting mission along my street in Missoula. I picked up, then tossed away, one blue workman’s glove, a McDonald’s milkshake container, and a foul concoction of chewing tobacco swirling within a clear plastic container, no longer the enticing color or flavor of the “energy water” the drink label promised its consumer.*
TWO WEEKS EARLIER…
“That bird’s back on our picnic table!” a sandy-haired boy shouted from a neighboring campsite. He apparently wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular-the only audible responses were a raven’s squawks, occasionally punctuated by the thud of sailing rocks striking the ground.
“What are you doing!?” the boy’s mother yelled. “Stop throwing rocks at that raven!”
The boy’s father interrupted her. “That stupid bird’s stealing people’s food. Go ahead, son!”
“Stop. Now. Both of you” the mother replied. “This is a national park. All wildlife is protected here, even that thieving raven.”
“Oh,” sighed the father. Their heads lowered, the father and son quickly headed off to purchase firewood for the evening.
The following night I returned late to my campsite in the heart of Yellowstone after an epic evening of wildlife viewing. I had seen two black bears, a grizzly bear, a wolf, several pronghorn antelope, a bighorn sheep ram, and numerous cow elk with newborn calves along the park’s Northern Range, plus a few bull bison lounging by a lush meadow bordering the Norris Campground.
I briefly wondered whether the raven-raving father and son would also unwittingly attract and then harass a wild “pest”, “intruder” or “thief” if it weighed 2,000 pounds, and ran faster than they could. But I really didn’t want to find out.
The father and another older male family member stayed up late that night, cracking open swift and successive numbers of beers and talking loudly until 11:30 p.m. Unable to sleep, and being well past the “quiet hour” of 10:00 p.m., I called out to my temporary neighbors, asking them to politely shut down their party. Afterwards, I continued standing outside my tent for several minutes, looking at a night sky so brilliantly studded with stars, into space that seemed so vast, untarnished, clear and quiet.
I got up at six the next morning, astonished to see a yard sale of food and other items left out by the fire pit and picnic table where the two men had been partying. Water and food containers. Silverware and cooking utensils. Dishwashing liquid and a sponge. Beer cans. Dinner remnants left out overnight on the picnic table, likely covering a laminated sign, plastered park-wide, warning visitors to store and secure virtually everything when not in use, for the safety of both wildlife and people, and for future visitors utilizing these areas.
THE SERMON BEGINS…
Perhaps my campground neighbors never saw or read these signs, or other warnings and notices regarding bear country protocols posted in all “developed areas” and park entrances, as well as in visitor newspapers. Garbage may be merely unattractive and a nuisance at home in Missoula, but in wilder places such as Yellowstone, it’s potentially deadly for all who visit or live there.
Bears don’t enjoy being in close company with humans, or vice-versa. Come to think of it, most species we share the planet with, as well as ourselves, prefer clear and consistent boundaries, and ideally, have others respect them.
People openly feeding bears, coupled with laxly enforced littering and garbage containment laws in Yellowstone, didnt’ really end en masse until the 1970s. These policies never did work so swell for keeping humans safe, or grizzly and black bears wild and wary. Neither does ignoring or disrespecting current park laws and regulations. With over three million visitors a year, Yellowstone needs more rangers, both the law enforcement and the interpretive kind, to keep the peace between critters and humans, and to educate folks as to what is at stake here, for everyone’s safety and sake.
It’s hard to say whether any of this missive would have found a receptive audience in my still dozing and perhaps hungover neighbors. I’d like to think that the mother would have set things right upon learning how potentially dangerous unsecured items were for her family, her neighbors, and ultimately, any wildlife in search of an easy, attractive meal. The father, on the other hand, did not seem interested in teaching his son how to reduce and resolve conflicts with others in Yellowstone, and perhaps closer to home as well.
IF BEARS COULD TALK…
I am no longer a Yellowstone National Park Service ranger, but will always be one at heart. I find it hard, especially here, in the world’s first national park, not to lead and teach by example, not to share what I am learning with others, not to speak up when I can, and most importantly, not to take responsibility for the choices that I do make, and the consequences that follow. Hopefully, the majority of my choices will be conscious ones.
It seems much harder being an engaged and committed citizen compared to being a consumer*, not only when we visit wild places, but also wherever we make our homes, forge our lives, and build our communities. Imagine if six billion of us did our best to do so anyway. We’d have less garbage, perhaps a few more bears, and more peace in the woods. After all, isn’t that why we go there in the first place?
*Consumer. One that consumes or one who acquires goods and services; a buyer.
Consume. To eat or drink up; ingest; to expend (fuel, for example); to waste, squander; to destroy, to level; to absorb, engross. Intransitive verb-to be destroyed, expended or wasted.
Definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition.