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Don't Pet the Baby Ducks


A few weeks ago, a press release caught my attention: A young black bear had followed a boy onto a dock at Lucky Peak Reservoir.

Thankfully, the boy's parents were able to scare the bear off. The family had done nothing to harass or tempt the bear, but it got me thinking—or remembering actually.

I've had the good fortune to live in some amazing wilderness havens throughout my life—places whose unbelievable natural beauty draws millions of visitors each year. And, undoubtably, at some point each summer, someone decides to: A) hand-feed a bear, B) ride a bison or C) pose with a moose.

The result of the above scenarios usually turns out the same: really, really bad.

This phenomenon has always puzzled me. While I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up experiencing the outdoors, it would seem that not sticking your hand out to one of the largest carnivorous predators on the continent would be simple common sense. Apparently, that's not the case.

I'll never forget watching a family of tourists emerge from a Town Car with New Jersey plates and joyously shove their young son toward one of the biggest bull moose I've ever seen. It was during the fall rut, when already unpredictable moose are hopped up on hormones. It was as if the parents were saying, "Hey, Johnny, it's been a fun five years, but you're too expensive to keep feeding, so go pet the nice moose and try not to scream too loud when he starts trampling you."

The problem isn't that people are excited by nature, but simply that they continue to ignore the "wild" part of wildlife. Somewhere along the way, as people have increasingly moved to urban centers, they have forgotten that the world is not one big petting zoo.

As Ed Mitchell, spokesman for Idaho Fish and Game Department puts it, "Enjoy wildlife and look at it, but don't grab it."

Each year Fish and Game officials have the challenge of convincing people that it is in their best interest, as well as that of the animals, to leave the critters alone. While the most notable cases involve human confrontations with large adult animals, especially those that can eat you, the most common issue comes with the animals we see on a regular basis.

"More often than not, it's a harmless thing like a baby duck," Mitchell said. "They're intensely cute and people want to get their hands on them, but it usually turns out bad for the wildlife."

Those repercussions include possibly causing physical harm to an animal or putting it in a place where it can't be found by its mother. Mitchell said one of the most common problems is when someone comes across a fawn or elk calf alone in a field and assumes they have been abandoned. They haven't. Elk and deer babies hide by hunkering down and staying perfectly still until their mothers come back to get them, and mom is most likely close by.

When it comes to larger predators, it's better to avoid up-close interaction altogether. This time of year, as people are heading out to the boonies, the possibility of conflicts is much greater. But there are a few simple steps that will help avoid a problem.

No. 1 is food storage. If you're in a bear-prone area, hang your food in a tree (away from the trunk) or lock coolers and containers in a car. Never take food into a tent—it just makes you smell like one big burrito. If you're in an area frequented by grizzlies, you may want to invest in a bear-proof box.

When it comes to mountain lions, hike in groups and don't let young children wander off on their own. Mitchell said hikers and hunters should also take special precautions to protect their dogs in wolf territory. Wolves don't tolerate any other form of canine on their turf, so he suggests keeping your dogs close and being aware of any signs of wolves in the area.

So, next time you're out and about, just remember what you learned in kindergarten: Look, but don't touch.


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