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Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife

A moose grazes makes his way through the forest.

This is the sixth in a series where we are really diving deep into the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics seven principles. Throughout this series we are discussing each of the principle in great detail. This blog post is digging into Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife.

Seeing wildlife is one of the highlights of my experiences in the outdoors. Even though I’m terrified of being eaten by bear, I still very much enjoy seeing them in their natural habitat as opposed to racing back and forth behind a chain-link fence at the zoo.

However, if we do not continue to practice Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife – we can lose that privilege. Also, not practicing it can put us in danger.

While visiting Yellowstone National Park I watch a group of tourists crowd a bear to attempt to get a photo. The bear then darted across the road and the group followed. This is a great example of what not to do. In some parks, you can be ticketed for harassing wildlife. And believe me, they don’t want you to do it, so it’s going to be a fine you won’t want to pay.

Elk graze in a field at the Buffalo National River. I observed these animals from the safety of my vehicle, which is good Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife
Elk graze in a field at the Buffalo National River

But how do you know if you are harassing wildlife or are simply too close? As I stated above, seeing wildlife in their natural state is a blessing of being in the outdoors. But you really want to be sure to do so responsibly.

Jeffrey Marion, a founding member of the Leave No Trace Board of Directors, writes in his book, “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors,” that if wildlife react to your presence, then you are too close.

Never follow or approach wildlife

You should never follow or approach wildlife. Wild animals are way more sensitive to their surroundings than you are. Unless you’re an awesome hunter, they probably know when you are sneaking up on them or following them.

While visiting with an Arkansas Game & Fish Commission wildlife biologist once, he told me I have probably passed way more bears in the wilds of Arkansas than I realize. He said they have such a keen sense of smell. They know I’m coming way before I get there and move on quietly away.

However, you need to make noise when hiking in bear country. This is good just in case the conditions are not right and they don’t smell you and move on.

A bison eats in at Badlands National Park

When you stalk or disturb wildlife it forces them away from the best habitat. And it’s always good to remember that you are visiting and they live there. Never encircle or crowd wildlife. This tends to happen most in popular national parks where there are many visitors.

Sometimes visitors unknowingly do this as they elbow their way around other visitors to get a better view or photograph.

Marion says to “avoid loud startling noises, quick movements, and direct eye contact, which may be interpreted as aggression.”

It is also important to use Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare – and make sure you are not visiting an area during a sensitive time. If you do visit during this time, be sure to give the animals their space.

A mountain goat is seen in Colorado. I also viewed this beauty from the safety of my vehicle putting into practice Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife

Sensitives times could include while they are finding a mate, birthing, guarding their young, or when food is scarce. Marion also suggests not camping near the only water source for miles in an arid area. This might prevent animals from getting water.

Many people flock to the Buffalo National River during the elk rutting season. But it is wise to observe them from a great distance, perhaps even in your vehicle.

Never feed wildlife

The phrase “A fed bear is a dead bear,” is so true. When you feed wildlife intentionally or unintentionally, they become habituated to humans and lose their healthy fear of humans. Habituated animals are braver and will approach humans and campsite, more putting the human in danger.

To keep our wild spaces safe places, habituated animals are often euthanized.

Wildlife will choose the easiest meal and are opportunists, so when you accidentally leave food out they will take advantage of it.

Marion writes, “Prospects of an easy meal often lures wildlife into hazardous locales, such as campgrounds, trailheads, and roads, where they may be chased by dogs, hit by vehicles, or exposed to predators.”

This is one reason why it’s so important to practice Leave No Trace Principle 3 – Dispose of Waste Properly. Dropped crumbs or spilled food, putting your unfinished meal in the fire, or leaving your trash are examples of accidentally leaving food out for animals.

A moose is shown in Wyoming. Always observe wildlife from a safe distance and use Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife

It is also extremely important to store you, food correctly. Remember what that game and fish biologist said about bears’ sense of smell? Well, Marion states that a bear’s sense of smell is roughly 2,000 times better than a human’s. They can find your food from miles away! And it’s not just food you need to store correctly. It’s anything with a smell, including toothpaste, chapstick, or dirty dishes.

So how do you properly store your food?

There are several ways to properly store your food. In the frontcountry where you have access to a vehicle, keep all your food inside a hard-shelled vehicle (i.e. not a convertible with a soft top.) Some places will also have a bear box or a container where animals cannot get in and therefore cannot obtain the food.

Some places that have specific backcountry campsites also may have bear boxes or a bear wires (for bear bags see below). All of your food, trash, and smelly items go into the bear box.

Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife

You can also “bear bag,” where you put all of your food trash, and smelly items into a waterproof bag (in case it rains!) and hang the bag from a tree. The bear bag needs to be 12 feet off the ground and six feet from the trunk of the tree and nearest branches, Marion says.

Bear canisters and a bear-proof sack, like the Ursack, can also be used to properly store food without hanging. But you’ll want to check with the park or forest, because some places want you to be more protected from bears. This is especially true for grizzly country.

I always bear bag or keep all my food, trash, and smelly items in a bear box. Because I also don’t want other animals steeling my food or chewing through my tent. Plus as I said above, I’m terrified of being eaten by a bear. So I always bear bag even if I don’t need to.

Be sure to control your pets because they don’t know Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife

Your dog or cat may be your baby, but they are still animals with the prey, chase, and kill instincts. At best they can harass smaller animals like raccoons or squirrels, and at worst wild animals could harm or kill them or you.

Some places like the Buffalo National River do not allow dogs on their trails because they can disturb wildlife. Again, you want to use Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare and make sure animals are allowed where you are going.

It’s always wise to control your animal in wild spaces; for your safety, your pet’s safety, and to respect wildlife.

By practicing Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife – you make your trip safer for you and the wild animals who call it home. You also protect the precious ability to observe wildlife in their natural habitat.

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Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife tells us to share wild spaces with those who live there. Doing this will help keep you and them safe!

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