Talking to the Animals



What better way to learn about the lives of bears than living in their natural habitat? David Bittner, a biologist and nature photographer, has returned to the Alaskan wild most summers over the past 15 years to study and record the grizzly life, even building a certain trust with certain individual creatures. Bittner will speak at the upcoming PINC conference in Sarasota on December 8, but SRQ spoke with the wild scientist in anticipation of the event.

What do you learn through extended stays in the habitats of fish and bears that you could not otherwise glean? Bittner: Bears are very special and individual animals. It is the character of a few bears which really struck me when I first travelled to this remote region in Alaska. Compared to most other bears, there are a few that have a very small home range and behave extraordinarily tolerantly towards my, and likely other, human presence. With numerous encounters and corresponding patience, they approach of their own will. It seems as if it is possible to build some sort of level of trust, which was very surprising to me and which I thought would not be possible with wild grizzly bears. The annual return of the Pacific salmon is such an incredible event that one must see this on his/her own. The evolutionary interaction between bears and salmon is also extraordinary and bears act as vectors in driving evolutionary processes, for example, sockeye salmon morphology at particular streams I know. 

As good a relationship to the bears may develop, how do you avoid being the next Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by bears in the wild? I am very different than Timothy. I have a PhD in evolution and ecology and have grown up being outdoors. Travelling in bear country, you should stick with the most basic rules, such as choosing your campsite, protecting your campsite, dealing with food in camp and tent, carrying bear deterrents, not approaching bears, making sure you do not surprise a bear, making your presence around bears known, making noise when necessary, etc. Most importantly, treat all bears respectfully. In my opinion, this tragic accident could have been avoided if only he or his girlfriend were carrying bear deterrents (spray and flare) or at least protected their camp with an electric fence or, even better, had chosen a different camp site. But these were all issues Treadwell was fully aware of and neglected on purpose. He simply pushed it too far. Many people compare me with Treadwell and think I will end the same way. I may, but people that know me or have been in the field with me can fully confirm that I am a very cautious person and especially since I became a dad also a very responsible person, especially when being around bears.

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