How to be Friends with Bears: Advice from Bear Specialist Lara Antonello

How to be Friends with Bears: Advice from Bear Specialist Lara Antonello

Finding balance between allowing animals space to roam and inhabit their territory while also allowing safe recreation by humans poses a difficult task. It can be more difficult with some animals, like bears, because they can be dangerous if not properly managed. This management consists of compliance by humans to reduce encounters with them, specifically reducing attractants so bears don’t boldly venture into areas humans are camping and recreating in search of food. To ensure this cooperation, there is a new bear food storage order that requires all attractants to be stored in a hard-shelled vehicle or camper. To dig a little deeper in how and why this order was made I interviewed self-proclaimed ‘Bear Lady’ herself, Lara Antonello, who is the bear food storage coordinator on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). 

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are endemic to North America. There are no known grizzly bears in the SNRA.

Most people have probably heard the phrase, “a fed bear is a dead bear,” which means first-time offending bears, or those that get into human attractants, must be euthanized. This remains the policy in the State of Idaho and on the SNRA, leading me to wonder why bears can’t simply be relocated. Upon asking Lara she replied, “Think about it, where in the lower 48 would you be able to put a bear where they won’t find new human attractants?” Implying that moving the bear is simply moving the problem. And if nothing is done about the problem bear? It becomes habituated to human food, and thus will continue to return to the same place it found food before. This poses a threat when new campers set up a tent in that same place and the bear comes back looking for food. “There really isn’t a positive outcome with human food once the bear becomes involved” explains Lara, which she then concludes, “Prevention and education remain the most positive solutions for keeping both humans and bears safe.” Most of the responsibility for these education and prevention measures lands on the shoulders of Lara. Her main responsibilities include educating the public about being bear aware, coordinating education outreach especially in schools with kids, and ensuring compliance with the food storage order.

A bear looking for attractants at a campsite. We don’t want to see this.

She explains that one of her favorite parts of her job is working with local youth on being bear aware. She hopes that she can inspire young kids to begin to practice bear safe habits and tell their friends and family when out camping. “It’s amazing when 50 tiny children shout that you need to put your granola bars into your car at night” she continues, “You really feel like you’re making a difference in these kids’ lives, because they can learn at an early age how to recreate in bear territory in a way that keeps both them and bears safe.” She hopes over time as these young generations grow older with these new habits, a cultural shift will occur towards being more “bear aware.”

Lara was inspired to get this job after seeing how bear aware the community she lived in was in Montana while attending school. When her current position was created, she was inspired to enhance this awareness in her community in Idaho and help facilitate a safe relationship between humans and bears. She recognizes monumental shifts still need to happen with how humans recreate in bear country, but “small steps go a long way” she says, and the “more people that are talking, the quicker these shifts will occur.” Her ultimate goal of her position would be to walk into a campsite and “see everything is already put away and the campers understand the responsibilities of recreating in bear country.” It really comes down to a collective understanding that “Humans are as much a part of the landscape as bears are; humans come to this place and play a role in the ecosystems both while we’re here as well as when we are gone” and she hopes people get to think about their role in the ecosystem and how it can be a positive one. “In the end, our actions don’t just affect us and bears in the area, but the safety of the camper pulling into your campsite once you leave.” 

CeAnna Schwartz is a Naturalist at the Redfish Visitor Center. She enjoys hiking, exploring different alpine lakes and observing the change in vegetation as the elevation changes.

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