Michael L. Wolfe is a professor of wildlife science in Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources and is a certified wildlife biologist. He pens an opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune asking readers to stop blaming the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Forest Service for the death of 11-year old Samuel Ives when he was dragged from his tent during the night by a black bear and killed.

Much of what Wolfe writes is true and I would have to agree with him. The ultimate responsibility of personal safety is in the hands of the individual who ventures into the wild. Each one of us should have a good understanding of the area we are going and the potential dangers from the wildlife we can face. This can include anything from poison plants to large and dangerous animals such as bears and mountain lions. But there has been many complaints about how the entire event was handled. Even members of the Ives family have spoken out.

Wolfe says that the actions taken by the UDWR and the Forest Service followed the letter of the book in how to deal with such an event. This was also reiterated by the Utah governor this week as well but does that exonerate wildlife officials from any responsibility as Wolfe suggests?

It seems that most of what these officials did was following the rules with the exception of one thing. That was a decision of forestry personnel to make an assumption based on odds and failing to verbally let people know that a bear had already attacked a camper earlier that day.

Wolfe writes this:

Still, there remains the question of whether the Forest Service should (or could) have closed the developed campground in question or posted specific warnings at the remote campsite. Ample signage exists in the general area warning campers of the presence of black bears and advising appropriate behavior to minimize the risk of potentially aggressive encounters with the animals.
These general observations raise the question of just how site-specific warnings about potential wildlife hazards must be, particularly when the majority of campers are inured to such warnings.

When dealing with general wildlife warning issues, officials need not nor should they be responsible for traveling about holding the hands of campers, hikers, etc. and reminding them every two minutes that potential dangers face them. But this case is a bit different.

Wolfe shares a scenario to support his case but I believe he misses the point of the entire tragic event.

We know that vehicle collisions with deer and elk pose potentially fatal risks for motorists. To counter this threat, warning signs are posted along stretches of highway with a history of such collisions. However, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and because the frequency of such collisions is low, most motorists do not heed these warnings. Suppose that a fatal accident occurs within one of these marked stretches. Is it the responsibility of the UDWR or the Utah Department of Transportation (the keeper of the highway) to inform motorists that a specific fatal incident occurred at precisely that spot?

I think this is a poor analogy in that it really attempts to compare apples with oranges. I do agree with his belief that “familiarity breeds contempt” and that people do tend to not pay attention to such warning signs. I fall back on my initial comment that the ultimate responsibility of one’s safety rest in their own hands.

Mr. Wolfe seems to overlook the one issue that is most important in this discussion. He even asks readers the burning question.

A larger philosophical question underlies this issue. To what degree is a governmental agency responsible for sterilizing the outdoor experience of all potentially fatal but highly improbable hazards, such as venomous snakes, or, even more outlandish, lightning strikes?

The wording of the question indicates that the writer still is avoiding the real issue. I agree that the government is not and should not be responsible for somehow protecting outdoorsmen from hazards and risks that are part of the total experience.

But, this is what happened. A black bear attacked a camper earlier that day, in the same campground as Samuel Ives and his family were camping. A camper was batted in the head by a bear and had the camper not moved, he probably would have had his head bitten by the bear. The bear bit through the tent and took a chunk out of the man’s pillow he was laying on.

The report was made to officials who pursued the bear with dogs but failed to locate the bear. Officials made the decision that it was not necessary to close the campground or even verbally notify other campers about the event, citing the odds were minimal that the same bear would return to the campground. They were wrong. Was it outside of their ability to notify the campers? The ultimate decision would be the campers if officials deemed it not necessary to close the campground.

The bear returned and we know the end result. This is completely different than the analogy Wolfe uses in describing the deer and elk crossing signs. People in cars are a moving target who have a chance of avoiding a collision if they choose to heed the caution signs and slow down. Campers should know there are risks and should adhere to all the suggestions to limit bear encounters. In many cases, fines can be levied against people who do not follow the rules.

Campers are sitting targets. They may have been following all known guidelines to reduce their risks. Officials had information that may or may not have resulted in the Ives family of pulling up stakes and heading home. They never had the decision to make as officials withheld that information. I want to know why. Is it that difficult a chore to contact all the campers in that campground and inform them?

People are responsible for their own safety. My only beef with Utah officials comes in their decision to withhold the information they had. If that decision was made “by the book”, then it is clear that the book needs amending. I don’t think it is necessary to inform everyone simply because someone saw a bear but this was a case of one camper in the same campground being attacked. This bear obviously was not operating in his normal mode. Officials should not have assumed the bear would not return.

The event was tragic for the Ives family. Had officials notified all campers of the previous morning’s attack, perhaps a life could have been saved. We’ll never know.

Tom Remington