Watoga Trail Report

Susan Chappell and Michele Fehrer cycling on the Greenbrier River Trail while maintaining social distancing. K. Springer photos

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

This shocking Denver Post headline from 2009 was intended to grab attention, and it likely achieved that goal. The bear and the woman involved became unfortunate headline grabbers, as well as victims.

Victims of their behaviors for sure, yet clearly, it was the human who failed to appreciate the consequences of her actions. The blame for this gruesome situation rests entirely with the woman. Wildlife holds no blame outside of their instinctual imperative to eat.

According to the article, the 74-year-old woman had been feeding bears for some time, leaving dog food, fruit and yogurt in her backyard, and telling wary neighbors that she enjoyed watching the bears. It ended tragically for both the bear and the woman in this case, but often it is just the bear that pays the price when people feed them.

In an earlier issue of the Watoga Trail Report, we discussed the role of nature in human health. Humans have an intrinsic connection to all that we call the natural world, including our relationship with other animals.

A man feeding donut holes to bears on the Alaskan Highway and posting the pictures on social media was fined and required to stay 50 meters away from all bears.

This relationship has strict rules of etiquette that, when violated, often result in harm to the animal. Sometimes it leads to injury or death to the human, and when it does, it makes headlines such as the one in Denver.

Warmer and kinder weather is nearly upon us, and more folks will be visiting Watoga State Park. Park visitors can expect to encounter wildlife that call these mountains their home. And this includes bears who are now out and about and absorbed in their continuous search for food.

Watoga State Park, as well as much of the surrounding area, is regarded as a high-density area for black bears. Folks from out of state are often heard saying that they have never seen a bear in the wild in their entire lives. Yet, it is not uncommon to experience multiple bear sightings in one day here in Pocahontas County.

For the most part, our citizenry has learned the dos and don’ts of living with bears. It would be reassuring to think that it is common sense not to feed these critters, but common sense does not stretch far enough to reach some people.

The basic facts are: bears fed by humans will generally give up their fulltime job of foraging and turn to seeking sustenance from the hands of humans. This turns the bear from a creature wary of humans to one that equates humans with food, and that can make them dangerous.

If you feed a bear, you have sealed its fate in many cases. The short rhyme that describes the bear’s outcome is “A fed bear is a dead bear.” This is certainly not meant to be funny, particularly for the bear and her cubs should the bear be a mother. It is a grim warning of the consequences of feeding bears anywhere in the park. They will most likely be shot if they become nuisance bears.

The common notion that these nuisance bears are relocated to another area is, unfortunately, not always the case. In practice, the relocated bears generally return to the location where they were receiving handouts, and in short order.

As Jody Spencer, Superintendent of Watoga State Park, humorously puts it, “Relocated ‘nuisance bears’ have been released two counties away, and the bears beat the wildlife official back home.” 

And Jody speaks from the experience of handling many complaints about visitors feeding the bears, particularly those staying in campgrounds and cabins. This has often had a negative outcome for the bears.

A man was arrested for feeding bears along the Alaskan Highway in British Columbia last year. The Outside magazine article said that the accused had been feeding bears “donut holes” through his car window and posting the selfies on social media for over two years before being caught.

I think it a bit presumptuous on the violator’s part to think that the bear, an omnivore, would know where the donut ended and his fingers began.

He was fined $2,000 and the court additionally imposed a restraining order requiring that he stay a minimum of 50 meters from any bear for six months. The British Columbian ordinance states that “A person must not intentionally feed or attempt to feed dangerous wildlife.” 

I agree with the $2,000 fine, but 50 meters (164 feet) doesn’t seem quite far enough for comfort to me. These are grizzly bears, a sub-species of brown bear –  at an adult standing height of over eight feet, a weight of 550 pounds, and a top speed of nearly 35 miles per hour, you just better hope that you can outrun your companion because you will not outrun the bear.

When you feed a bear so that you can take a picture on your smart-phone to send to friends and family, you may have caused the death of that bear.

Now, if your phone is really that smart, shouldn’t Siri say “Hey, buddy, don’t you think that you should reconsider feeding that bear. I’m just a phone, but I think that feeding a wild bear is a dumb thing to do?”

Maybe Apple should have an app for that.

If you really love animals, prove it – Do not feed the bears or any wildlife within Watoga State Park. 

In closing, may I say that we who live in beautiful Pocahontas County have another reason to be grateful, even during this pandemic and period of social distancing. We have a multitude of hiking and biking trails that permit being with friends and family while maintaining a safe distance and getting exercise at the same time.

The Greenbrier River Trail immediately comes to mind when considering the double tread ways. The trail can easily accommodate two cyclists or hikers side-by-side while maintaining the recommended six feet of separation.

So now, there is no excuse for not getting in your 10,000 steps a day. Other trails such as Cow Pasture up in the Cranberry and Ann Bailey at Watoga should also work for getting out and enjoying the fresh mountain air with friends.

Stay healthy and fit – take advantage of what we have here in Pocahontas County.

Ken Springer

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