In late August, a British Columbia man pled guilty in a Fort Nelson courtroom to hand-feeding grizzly bears along the Alaska Highway in northeastern B.C.
I’m sorry, you might say, can you repeat that?
Yes. Hand-feeding grizzly bears along the Alaska Highway.
The man, Randy Scott, had apparently been posting photos of himself feeding roadside bears to social media since at least 2017. In a photo released by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, an adolescent grizzly can be seen taking a Timbit—Canada’s answer to the donut hole—from a human hand, presumably Scott’s.
That’s a violation of B.C.’s Wildlife Act, in addition to being a mind-bogglingly stupid and dangerous thing to do. In Section 33., “Attracting Dangerous Wildlife,” the act reads: “A person must not intentionally feed or attempt to feed dangerous wildlife.”
According to CBC, the charges stemmed from last October, when a conservation officer happened by while Scott and a woman were in the midst of feeding a bear from their car. (The woman was originally charged too, but her charges were stayed during the same week that Scott pled guilty.)
Scott was fined $2,000 (a little over $1,500 in the U.S.) and ordered to stay 50 metres (which converts to about 164 feet) away from bears for the next six months.
“Hopefully it sends a message and deters people that this is not wise, it’s not lawful, and it should never happen in the first place,” area conservation officer Shawn Brinsky told the CBC.
I hope so too. But while I’m glad that the COs pursued the case, to me the consequences don’t match the crime.
Fifty metres seems like a bare minimum distance to try to stay from any bear, any time, for anybody, regardless of whether or not you’ve been convicted of delicately placing a sour-cream-glazed into a grizzly’s open mouth. That’s not a punishment—that’s just common sense!
In its official guidelines for bear-viewing etiquette, the National Park Service’s top tip is that visitors should “respect a bear’s space”; they recommend the use of binos or a spotting scope in lieu of trying to get anywhere close. Some parks have specific requirements, and they’re stricter than Scott’s restraining order: 300 feet in Yellowstone, 200 feet in Shenandoah National Park.
British Columbia’s own literature on staying safe around bears reminds drivers viewing roadside animals to “remain a respectful distance” and to stay in their vehicles at all times. The pamphlet warns drivers that any bear who approaches their vehicle “may have been previously fed by people and could be dangerous.”
And that to me is the heart of the issue. Scott didn’t just endanger himself, and the bears he fed—who are now at much higher risk of being put down by the COs for aggressive or nuisance behavior—he also endangered all the people who like to walk, hike, run, bike, or otherwise enjoy the wilderness in that stretch of northern British Columbia.
It’s easy to joke around about Scott and his Timbits, or the man who donned a bear suit in Haines, Alaska, a few years ago and then charged into the proximity of a feeding grizzly sow and her two cubs. Their stories go briefly viral, people make their jokes online, and then we all move on. And I’m not against a good joke now and then!
But when I think about the other kinds of bear stories that go viral, the ones about human-bear encounters that end in death, it’s harder for me to laugh. Randy Scott’s actions could have gotten people killed—in fact, they still could, as the bears he fed are still roaming around. In that context, two grand and a laughable restraining order seems like a slap on the wrist.