We say Montana's animals are for your eyes only because they are not pets--never, ever try to touch them, chase them, disturb them or take photos of them with Junior sitting on their backs. (You may laugh, but there are people who have attempted such things.) Remember: these are wild animals in their natural habitat; disrupting that natural order can be disastrous for the animals, and dangerous for you. Keep the following guidelines in mind whenever you're on the lookout for Montana wildlife.
Basically, etiquette begins with two cardinal rules:
1) Leave no trace
2) Tread lightly
Leave no trace means exactly what it sounds like: make sure you respect wildlife and their habitat by not leaving behind your empty pop cans and potato chip bags, for starters. But why not go an extra step beyond this? If you see trash left behind by some thoughtless dolt before you, pick it up and carry it out. It will be your good deed for the day. Wherever you camp or picnic, try to leave the spot in better condition than you found it. Camp in designated areas only, and use pre-existing campfire rings. And speaking of fires, please don't play Paul Bunyan and start chopping at live trees and vegetation for your campfire. You're destroying the very thing you're in nature to enjoy. Instead, use only dead wood from fallen timber on the ground. Look around; you'll find some.
Tread lightly is fairly self-explanatory, as well. First and foremost, it means you should stay on designated roads and trails to minimize the impact of vehicle and foot traffic. Why is this so important. In the delicate ecosystems of Montana's wildlands, there really is a fragile balance. Traffic (whether by foot or vehicle) can create ruts and trails where they didn't exist before; that can lead to erosion, loss of plant life, habitat...and so on. The boomerang effect can lead to disastrous consequences, so keep your feet or vehicle where they're supposed to be for the sake of Montana's natural beauty. "Tread lightly" also means knowing the boundaries of public and private lands, and asking permission before venturing onto private land. This is just simple courtesy, and it's easily done; consult a map before you begin your trip to be sure. Remember, you're an ambassador for every visitor who comes after you: one rude or inconsiderate visitor can block access for everyone in the future.
Finally, "tread lightly" doesn't just mean treating the land with respect; it means respecting the wildlife, as well. Never feed anything to Montana wildlife. Period. Such actions can cause habituation; animals get used to human food, and human contact, which in turn can lead to aggression. In many cases, the animal has to be destroyed if it can't be relocated. Simply put: a fed animal can be a dead animal.
Certainly everyone knows that bears, mountain lions and large animals can pose dangers. But keep in mind that any wildlife can be dangerous—even animals as seemingly harmless as deer can injure if provoked (yes, Bambi can get vicious). What's the best way to avoid injury? The number one rule: keep your distance. Never (repeat, never) approach bears, bison, moose or elk. These animals will attack if they feel threatened, especially if they have young to protect or are in the midst of a rut (breeding cycle). You can enjoy these animals at a distance, and a telephoto lens on your camera or a spotting scope will get a close view for you.
Not to sound like a broken record, but you should stay away from seemingly innocent animals, as well. People who enjoy watching and photographing wildlife can sometimes harm wildlife unintentionally. Most animals react with alarm when approached by humans on foot or in any type of vehicle. Depending on the situation, an animal may remain, flee, or in some cases, attack. The main problem with this is, these reactions stress the animals and cause them to expend energy. Although a single disturbance isn't much of a drain on the animal, repeated disturbances can take their toll—especially in winter months, when most animals need conserve their energy resources. Plus, repeated disturbance may cause wildlife to avoid an area, even if the area provides the best food or nesting site.
Even if you find an animal that appears to be injured, or a baby animal or bird that appears to be abandoned, avoid the temptation to "help." Injured animals often feel especially vulnerable, and will be more likely than ever to attack. Baby animals are usually being watched by protective mothers (even when you can't see them), and touching the young could bring mom's wrath on you, or even cause her to abandon her young. The most mild-mannered animals will go to extremes to protect their young. If you do spot an injured or abandoned animal, your best bet is to call the nearest Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks office to handle the situation.
Oh, yes. Did we mention that you should maintain a safe distance from all animals? It's only natural to want to get as close as you can, but always keep this tip in mind: if an animal suddenly stops feeding, raises its head sharply, appears nervous, or suddenly changes its directionof travel, you've ventured too close to it. Calmly back away to give the animal space. There's one other very good reason to stay away from animals: if you disturb them, it's considered harassment. In places like state and national parks harassment can get you a hefty fine. Now that be an embarrassing thing to explain to your co-workers when you get back to the office: "I was fined for harassing bunnies."
Okay, time for your first test question: What's the most important safety consideration when watching animals? That's right: keep a safe distance. (Okay, we've beat this point enough; time to move on.)
Here's another important safety tip when you're wildlife watching: leave your pets at home. Fido may be a great source of joy for you and your family, but he can be terrifying to wildlife—dogs can even chase and kill wildlife. (We know; your dog would never harm a fly, but leave it at home, anyway.) Besides, leaving your dog at home will actually increase your chances of seeing wildlife; animals won't feel as threatened by you as they will by your dog. Most animals have a keen sense of smell that alerts them to danger, and for them dogs smell like danger. Animals will smell your dog long before they smell you, and consequently, they'll be long gone before you ever get a chance to see them. Keep in mind: you're a visitor to these animals' homes, so be as respectful as possible.
This list of pointers will help you make your wildlife watching experience as easy as possible—for you and the wildlife.
- Let animals be themselves. Don't wave at them, yell and whistle at them, or try get them to move for your "perfect" picture. Remember, you're not in a zoo; you're in the wilds. If you are quiet and don't disturb them, you might see or learn something interesting.
- Keep your food to yourself. That baloney sandwich may taste great to you, but it can harm the digestive systems of wild animals and convince them to look for handouts from other people. Again, feeding animals habituates them to humans; habituated animals can be problem animals, and may have to be destroyed. So, you can save animals by resisting the urge to feed them. Besides, feeding animals breaks the first cardinal rule of wildlife viewing: keep a safe distance. (You knew we'd bring that up again, didn't you?)
- Stay away from nests. You might inadvertently lead a predator to the nest, or you may scare parents away from their young, exposing them to danger. You don't want to expose poor, helpless baby birds to danger, do you?
- Observe Area Closures. On Montana's public lands, you may occasionally run into areas closed for a variety of reasons: bear danger, mating seasons of certain animals, etc. If it's closed, it's closed for a good reason. Besides, Montana has millions of other acres of area for you to explore.