Each time the media covers incidents of human-bear encounters, reporters have an obligation to the public, and a neighborly prerogative, to ask: “Was the person carrying bear spray?” The answer to this question is important because it helps determine the ultimate outcome of any situation involving bears: carrying bear spray (and knowing how to use it) is the proven safest, most effective assurance for de-escalating conflict that keeps both humans and grizzlies alive.
And it’s a question that should be a part of every encounter story because it’s the piece that demands real accountability for people recreating in grizzly country. When reporters lead with the right question it not only provides a clearer rendering of the facts, but it shifts the conversation towards one where humans are doing their part to safeguard our wild neighbors.
Why, then, do we often see such lazy or sensationalized rehashings of human-bear conflicts peppered across the news? These kinds of stories do none of us any good. Not only is it bad reporting, but it helps perpetuate the narrative that there are bears lurking in the woods waiting to attack us, and that if it’s your time to go there’s simply nothing to be done about it. This is just not the case. For starters, grizzly bears don’t lurk, and they certainly aren’t sitting on their haunches waiting for a human meal to wander by. They are just bears doing what bears do in their native habitat – searching for varied food sources and raising their young. As Westerners, we need to get used to sharing the landscape with grizzlies, and being prepared with bear spray when we head out to play is a good place to start.
In contrast to such false narratives, the media’s coverage of a recent encounter involving humans and bears in the remote Centennial Valley of southwestern Montana was thoughtful and pointed. In this incident, a biologist with USFWS (who was carrying bear spray) had a close-up encounter with two young grizzlies and was charged by one of the pair. Not only was there a straightforward account of the facts, but in all surveyed articles covering the encounter, reporters highlighted that the biologist immediately deployed bear spray until the bears left the scene. Although the individual sustained some injuries during the charge attack, it was undoubtedly this action that saved the biologist’s – and the bear’s – life.
All reports of the incident also included a clear reminder that individuals recreating outdoors in the Rockies need to be prepared and ready to respond to possible bear encounters by following agency guidelines, including carrying bear spray and being ready to deploy it at a second’s notice. This is the kind of reporting we like to see!
The official announcement from USFWS still notes a full investigation of this incident as “ongoing.” That’s okay, but reporters should follow up. Often, the tragic result of an already unfortunate human-bear encounter is the removal and killing (or relocation) of a grizzly bear from its homeland. One article noted that the immediate area of the incident had been closed to the public, but what actually happened to the bears?
Carrying your canister when you head into bear country should be akin to, say, clipping your seatbelt when you get into your car. It’s what informed and educated people do. These are practices that should be so commonplace that we do them nearly without thinking. So let’s get into the habit with bear spray, and let’s demand that reporters start doing the work to ask and lead with the right questions – the kinds of questions that will hold people and wildlife agencies accountable to coexisting responsibly with grizzlies.