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See a bear by the highway? Keep driving

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See a bear by the highway? Keep driving

By Cathryn Atkinson, Pique Newsmagazine
May 2012

It was a lovely evening drive on the highway. Traffic was sparse, weather conditions were dry and bright, the best possible CD was filling up the Yaris with music, a long weekend was still ahead, and I was heading south.

bear crossings, black bear, grizzly bear

Suddenly, along a northbound section leading to an infamous Sea to Sky Highway curve there appeared five, no 10, vehicles huddled haphazardly on the hard shoulder. The danger to me was obvious, given that each one jutted out onto the "live" section of the highway itself and there was only the single lane there.

And as I approached the throng I had one immediate thought...

"Hmm, I wonder how many bears?"

Three. Black. Beautiful.

There was a sow and two older cubs quietly grazing on clover along the side of the highway. I could see them beyond the bumper of a dark blue Silverado.

I saw a woman exiting another car, striding towards the bears with some unknown purpose, probably involving photography and not suicide. There were other people already out of their vehicles. All seemed to be keeping a disrespectful four or five metres away.

The bears were ignoring them, from what I could see, thankfully.

black bear, Jim Robertson
Image by Jim Robertson, Animals in the World

This was all I could clock in a few seconds before driving past the spectacle. I then spent the next few kilometres flashing the brights at northbound vehicles, especially the heavy trucks, trying to warn them of the danger ahead. It must've worked or I would have heard about it on the evening news.
This isn't the first time I've seen this. The scenario will be played out time and again this summer, unless the RCMP or some other authority moves the drivers along. Hopefully there will not be any injuries to the viewers or the viewed.

Why do people do that? Is it a combination of wonder, entitlement, ignorance, and a mistaken sense of immortality? Are people so disconnected from nature that they must risk themselves, caught between bears and moving traffic, and risk the animals, too?

Given how many things happen as a matter of chance in the world and stupid choices of this sort are made so often, it is downright astonishing that there aren't more crashes, or that more visitors from Seattle or Abbotsford or Brisbane don't have arteries ripped open by pissed-off momma bears.
And it's astonishing that we don't think more about the risks to these animals, too, because the gawkers do risk the lives of the animals they are temporarily worshipping. Each year in British Columbia around 1,000 bears are shot, hit by cars, or "put down" in other ways, thanks to catastrophic close encounters with humans.

That's just black bears and grizzlies.

Each year I write something about this phenomenon, many journalists in this part of the world do, and each year a new crop of ridiculous and dangerous incidents are ready for harvesting. It's infuriating, and a real indication of the limitations of writing for a newspaper when people don't want to do the right thing.

I've been to Boundary Bay, south of Vancouver, in February a few times to see the wintering snowy owls. Dozens of the birds stay for several weeks to feed and rest on the sandy expanses beside the water before returning in that age-old migration back to the subarctic for summer.
There is a long dike at Boundary Bay, with instructions on signs telling people to observe the owls from the dike - it gives the owls about a quarter mile of space in order to exist undisturbed for those short weeks.

But, no. One idiot with a crappy camera lens decides that in order to get that amazing, blurry shot to email grandma they must get as close as possible. And others follow.

I spent time watching the birds escaping these burglars, knowing full well that for owls and birds of prey, merely taking off in flight can use up around seven per cent of their calorific power for the day. Make the owl take off seven times and... you have an exhausted owl. Dangerously exhausted - and the idiot probably still wants a couple more photos.

I consider myself to be a realist who aims for optimism where possible. I don't think it naïve or stupid to hope that most people are capable of displaying more foresight, intelligence, kindness and thoughtfulness about their impact on others in the world (whether human or animal) than the average troll at the bottom of a Yahoo! News story.

And I hope, all else failing, that they can read - and do read - the electronic signs above them on the Sea to Sky Highway that tell them not to stop on the highway when they spot wildlife.

There are bear and wildlife-watching tours here in Whistler, by all means take them. You'll learn loads and a logging truck won't take out your Honda.