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When paying wildlife a visit, be sure to mind your manners

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It’s not quite summer, but we’re getting there. Whether you consider the dawn of the dog days to be Memorial Day or June 21, or you have some other way of relating to the seasons, one thing is certain: it’s about time to go camping. Great news for us, but it’s not always so good for the wildlife who call the place home. We humans can be downright rude.

As with any visit to another’s domain, a little respect can go a long way. To help us brush up on our outdoor etiquette, we turned to Michelle van Hilten. She’s executive director of Think Wild Central Oregon, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center located in Bend, Oregon, and she has a few tips on how to respect and protect wildlife while we’re out enjoying our public lands.

Look but don’t touch. Or feed. Or even approach.

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Catching sight of wildlife is one of the true joys the outdoors. Seeing a golden-mantled ground squirrel shredding a pine cone on a stump, or a doe grazing her way across an alpine meadow can give reason to pause, to admire, and perhaps to reflect on your own place in the larger scheme of things. But keep your musings metaphorical, and don’t go from trying to relate, to trying for a relationship.

For one, approaching wild animals is probably going to scare them. “To wildlife, we’re predatory animals,” explains Michelle. “Seeing us puts them into constant flight mode, which can have chronic issues over time. It impacts reproduction and immune health.”

A healthy rule of thumb is to stay 25 yards back from small animals, 50 yards from deer and elk, and 100 yards from bears, cats, or coyotes. This includes pets, so if your dog enjoys a good chase, maintain proper yardages by keeping them on a leash. (For distance reference, a regulation bowling alley is about 20 yards long.)

What do you do when wildlife tries to make the first introduction? Don’t break bread with them, says Michelle. “Feeding is the worst. It’s also the most common mistake people make. You have all these adorable squirrels and deer sitting by the trail, just waiting to be fed.”

If you give in (or if you're not diligent in keeping your camp food out of reach) you're teaching the animal to overcome its natural fear of humans, and creating some ugly habits as well. “The animals become habituated to people. It kind of ruins them, in a way. They abandon their natural instincts to forage and feed themselves. They become dependent.”

They can also become aggressive. Feed a wild animal enough, and it will come to expect food. Neglect to feed it next time around, and it might pick a fight with you to steal the meal you're not providing. The mere potential for such brazen behavior is a death sentence for some; a fearless bear can wind up euthanized by authorities to prevent deadly attacks.

Even if an animal can come to rely on a year-round source of camp snacks without posing a threat to humans, the food will probably make them unfit for their environment. It might even kill them. That overfed, adorably chubby chipmunk you added to your Instagram feed might later become food for a predator that catches the rotund rodent all too easily. A deer, believe it or not, can actually starve to death with a stomach full of food it can’t digest.

The bottom line when dealing with wildlife is to ignore everything your first grade teacher taught you about being nice. Stare and point all you want. Don’t make friends. And refuse to share your snack with the rest of the class, no matter how politely they ask.

Tread mindfully and lightly, or not at all if you can help it.

It’s not polite to blunder through a neighbor’s flowerbed or garden. It’s just as rude to go stomping over native plant life in the wilderness, says Michelle. “Don’t trample vegetation. That’s someone’s food.”

Heavy traffic can destroy native flora and compact the soil, preventing future generations of plants from taking root. In the spring, those well-worn ruts become snowmelt-fed streams, which further damage the landscape. The rule for this one is simple. If there’s a path, stay on it. Don’t make or take shortcuts. If you’re in a group, keep to a single file.

Some activities have special considerations to prevent wear and tear on public lands. If you’re planning to mountain bike, consider rescheduling the ride if there’s been recent rain. If you’re camping, use established campsites and existing fire pits. If you must stake your tent in unused territory, choose a small plot on a flat rock or a sandy patch, and avoid the temptation of that fragile wildflower meadow.

© Richard Johnson / Adobe Stock

Most importantly, Michelle reminds us to heed any and all area and seasonal closures. “Those areas are closed for good reasons, like nursing, mating, or migration. It’s a sensitive time of year for a native species, and a closure usually means a species in decline.”

Clean yourself up a little before your visit.

Here’s some advice you might not have heard before: when you pay nature a visit, don’t bring unwelcome guests. We’re referring of course to those boorish botanical cousins from out-of-state, invasive species.

If by chance you’ve never encountered the term, invasive species are those that don’t belong in a particular ecosystem. They’re somehow introduced to a foreign habitat they’re fit to survive in, and—here’s the important bit—they crowd out or eat the native species. Invasive species are to blame for nearly half of today's endangered species, and their arrival often goes unnoticed.

“We call them hitchhikers,” explains Michelle. “They’re seeds of non-native plants that can stick to your clothes, to your hiking boots, or to your really furry dog.” Keeping potentially invasive species where nature made them is easy to do, and requires a one-time procedure. Before going to or from public areas, ensure your clothing is free of plant matter, and give your dog a quick brush-down. Aquatic enthusiasts should check their boats for stowaways, and if you’re heading afar for your float, you’ll probably be required to stop at a watercraft inspection station on the state line, where an inspection officer will check for you.

Get informed. Better yet, get involved.

There’s a lot more to outdoor etiquette than what we’ve covered thus far. To further your knowledge on how to reduce your impact on public lands, Michelle recommends a places to look.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website is the perfect place to start. The organization is the de facto expert on low impact recreation.

For specifics concerning your own region, contact local fish, wildlife, and park governing agencies. There you can get information on seasonal closures, laws and outdoor etiquette at the local level, and your area’s wildlife hotline, an important number to have in case you see an animal in need of urgent assistance.

If you want to get involved in protecting wildlife, you can volunteer your time, services, or other resources to a wildlife conservation or rehabilitation organization. Think Wild Central Oregon (the one Michelle is part of) is limited to the Bend, Oregon, area. But there's likely a similar organization in your own neck of the woods who could use your help.

© Maks_Ershov / Adobe Stock

Have fun out there, but be respectful. And keep in mind that presenting your best self while visiting wildlife habitat is more than just simple manners. You're helping to protect the source of magic that makes public lands such a joy to experience. Says Michelle, “Whether we notice it or not, wildlife makes natural areas what they are. Each animal has a purpose in the ecosystem, every species has a role. The landscapes look the way they do because of the wildlife that maintains them.”

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