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Everything hikers are taught about staying safe in the Colorado outdoors begins and ends with admonitions to give the state’s wildlife plenty of space. Yet the call of social media notoriety seems to have overpowered some hikers’ basic survival instincts (and common sense), resulting in a spate of ill-advised selfies with bears and other potentially dangerous wildlife.
In late August, Waterton Canyon, the Denver terminus of the Colorado Trail, was closed due to increased bear activity. But it’s not the bears that are the problem—it’s the people pursuing them. Recently a cyclist, in hot pursuit of social media capital, was chased by one of the animals in the area. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials report that humans are venturing much too close to bears foraging in the canyon—sometimes even brandishing selfie sticks to get that Instagram-worthy photo (just take a look at #bearselfie).
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Jennifer Churchill, a spokeswoman for CPW’s northeast region, recommends viewing and photographing all wildlife—bears, but also deer, moose and elk, which are entering mating season—from a healthy distance. She also suggests keeping something, such as a fence or a car, between you and the animal.
“If an animal changes its behavior, you’re too close,” she says.
Still, bears can sometimes end up closer to humans than we’d like—especially this time of year, when they’re seeking food to fill their bellies for hibernation. So what should one do, exactly, if a hiker’s path crosses a bear?
If your first instinct is anything besides “get your camera ready and approach,” then congratulations! You’ll probably be just fine. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also advises against the opposite type of response—breaking into a run or climbing a tree. Speak in a calm, slow voice to alert the bear to your presence without startling it, and make sure not to make any sudden movements as you retreat. If you’re hiking with a dog, make sure it’s leashed and under control. If that fails and the bear begins to approach, your best bet is to scare it off with loud noises, small rocks, or bear spray. In the extremely unlikely event of an attack, don’t play dead: Retaliate with everything you’ve got.
And if you’re still yearning to get that shot, remember: Anything short of a powerful telephoto lens combined with careful preparation probably won’t allow you to keep a safe distance.
“You’re not going to get a National Geographic photo with your iPhone,” Churchill says. “Don’t try.”
Besides, bear stories, like fish stories, are better told than illustrated—a photo of the encounter ruins all the potential for future exaggeration.