"An Interview with Chuck Bartlebaugh"

by Ayme Krogstad

Because of the artistically done graphic art printing material that the Be Bear Aware Campaign produces, many people have inquired if the director is a graphic artist or printer. If so, what qualifies him to produce bear avoidance and wildlife stewardship materials? His background as a semi-professional racecar driver is even more disassociated with wildlife, but his passion for the outdoors is what led him to where he is today.

Chuck Bartlebaugh has done an enormous amount of hiking and camping in bear country across North America. His quest to learn about bears has led him to the Arctic for polar bears, the coast of Alaska and British Columbia for brown bears, and into the interior for grizzlies and black bears.

We have prepared a special section to show some of the stunning photographs he has taken while traveling across North America and learning about our wildlife treasures. He has spent over 18 years traveling from the desert southwest to the Arctic Ocean putting over a million miles on his van, and often stopping to hike, raft, or fly into remote areas to photograph.

Q: Why do you have such a passion for bears?

A: Bears are absolutely fabulous. They have the capability to walk like people, develop social skills, and communicate to each other. They can be great protectors of their young, space, and food. On any given day, you may watch a bear in several different activities, displaying many various personalities. They have unique colors; white, blue, red, yellow, black, with each species having distinctive characteristics that are compatible with their habitat. The complexity is simply amazing to watch and study.

Q: What brought you to the outdoors?

A: After I was no longer able to race cars, I started looking for something to replace the excitement but had less stress involved. The idea of photographing wildlife, especially bears, and traveling to spectacular places was very appealing. Once you have seen the breathtaking mountains, waterfalls, and meadows filled with wildflowers, it's hard to go back. These are truly great treasures.

Q: Looking at all your great photos, what prompted you to focus solely on bear avoidance and wildlife stewardship?

A: My wildlife photographs, especially of bears, were like little personal possessions that I had gathered from wildlife. During my racing career everything was centered on me. In my new life, I wanted to work behind the scenes, giving back to the great treasures of the wild and, whenever possible, assisting the men and women who have dedicated their lives to wildlife, especially those devoted to recovering the grizzly bear in the lower 48.

Q: You emphasize that developing the materials you work on has been a team effort? Who are the members of that team?

A: That's correct. The Be Bear Aware Campaign is designed not to have members or be a large organization doing empire building in the conservation world. My partners, who I have worked with in the graphic arts, printing, advertising, and media worlds, are for the most part volunteers. Our objective is not membership, but assisting enormous networks of youth groups, hunting and fishing organizations, and teachers who share the passion for wildlife and wildlife stewardship.

When looking at developing new materials, we went to the true experts to determine the appropriate techniques and information: grade school children. They live and play in areas with bears, cougars, poisonous snakes, and alligators, and are seldom injured or killed in the process. Many maulings and fatalities occur with visitors who lack basic outdoor skills. The students compiled a list of what they knew to avoid encounters, and then contacted wildlife agencies, hunting and fishing organizations, and outfitters and guides to come up with a list of common sense safety precautions based on hundreds of years of family tradition. The students also prepared a list of questions about which they felt they lacked sufficient knowledge and made suggestions as to what kind of materials they believed would be helpful to inform new residents and visitors.

We took those suggestions and information to graphic arts and printing students, who started to produce prototypes. Professionals at wildlife management agencies then reviewed the material for accuracy.

This has been a win-win situation with a team that is combining many talents. Students K through 12 provide biology, creative writing, art, and skills such as printing and presentations with the support of local outfitters, guides, hunters, ranchers, and residents who bring generations of invaluable knowledge and experience. To complete the outreach networking, the wildlife agencies give strong support and guidance for accuracy. The opportunity to facilitate a national educational program is truly rewarding.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of the Be Bear Aware Campaign?

A: Without a doubt, the Train-the-Trainer Program is my favorite. We teach high school students and older youth group members to conduct a hands-on training program about hiking and camping in bear, cougar, and rattle - snake country. Through this program, the students learn about the biology of wildlife, how you can tell there are bears in your area, how to avoid confrontation while hiking and camping, proper food and attractant storage, and what to do if you do have an encounter with wildlife. The students and youth group members then train younger students and members of their organizations. It is truly amazing to watch the students take ownership and responsibility when educating the younger members of their community.

Q: Having graphic arts and printing students involved is a unique approach to wildlife conservation. How do they respond to their participation?

A: For a long time, graphic arts and printing students have focused on pertinent issues but ones with rather negative connotations: alcohol, smoking and statistics. Then, in the 1990's, the industry drastically changed. Gone were T-shirts and paper hats and in were computers that could generate complicated eight color, 3-D, and even holographic printing. It had advanced as much as Hollywood's special effects.

These advancements meant the students needed to be challenged and motivated in new and creative ways. As they started to work on projects that would provide bear avoidance materials, like Yellowstone National Park, they were inspired. With new graphic arts and printing techniques that were only in the developmental stages, they were able to take that inspiration and create breathtaking materials.

The students were able to see firsthand how high-quality graphic design and printing could help deliver a positive message to the public. During a test-sampling trip to Yellowstone, a student told a visitor he had helped test and produce one of the brochures. The visitor responded by pulling out an ink pen and asking him to autograph his copy. The student proudly signed and sealed the success of the program.

Q: What are some of the experiences you've had watching wildlife, especially bears?

A: I have had the opportunity to travel to the McNeil River in Alaska during the early 1980's the premier bear - viewing location in the world. It is well managed due to Larry AuMiller, who has spent around 20 years taking care of the facility. I had the enjoyment of watching cubs interact with their mothers and return to see them as grown bears with cubs of their own.

Ten visitors over a four - or five - day period are allowed to view the bears at the falls from an observation area on a bluff. They travel to and from the campsite to the falls as a group. Everyone stays at the observation area. Because of such consistent and responsible visitor actions, the bears are tolerant of people and do not see them as a threat to their fishing space or cubs. Sometimes there are as many as 60 bears at the falls, requiring them to develop a responsible social network that reduces conflict. The large, single, more dominant bears tend to avoid the observation area, but some mother bears will come near to avoid the pressure of so many bears at the falls. Viewers are then allowed to watch unique and intimate interactions between mother bears and their offspring without stressing or harassing them.

One time, a mother bear and her three cubs were just a pile of fur snoozing. When the mother woke up, she awakened her cubs and licked and smelled each one of their faces; the cubs proceeded to sit side by side in a line with their backs to us and stayed put while their mother left to go fish at the falls. As she would paw and lunge at the large salmon, the cubs would wiggle in anticipation but stayed in place, side by side, until she brought a catch back to share amongst them.

On another day, the most dominant bear caught a huge king salmon and imitating a family dog with a bone, pranced up and down the shore line, his muscles rippling, showing off his catch to the less dominant bears. The bears at McNeil River have developed a hierarchy that allows unique socialization between bears. Mother bears with cubs cautiously fish in some of the less competitive sites while the more dominant bears fish where they please and the less dominant bears challenge each other for turf.

What makes the McNeil River, and other bear-viewing areas, work are the small groups of visitors using common sense and consistent and non-threatening behavior that doesn't challenge the bears' space or food or compromise the safety of their young. Only viewing from the designated observation site and traveling to and from the falls on the same trail, as a group, and at approximately the same time everyday allows the bears to adjust to their visitors. The bears establish their daily routine avoiding encounters and conflicts with those viewing them.

In addition to McNeil River, I have had the pleasure of experiencing almost all of the bear viewing facilities along the Atlantic Coast over the past 20 years. In my early years, I had the opportunity to stay with Stan Price at Admiralty Island. Here I learned how easy it was to develop a false sense of security concerning bears. He had told me that a particular bear that he had raised as a cub would walk right along-side of me assuming I didn't do anything foolish. The bear entered the woods, emerging sometime later; she proceeded to walk almost next to me. I turned to Stan only to find a look of amazement almost to say, "What the heck are you doing!" I was startled and asked what was wrong and he informed me he wouldn't get near that bear. Puzzled, I replied that I thought he has said she was all right to be near. "I've never seen that bear before," he replied, "and it's not a she, it's a he!" What an important lesson learned about how gullible visitors can be, and how passive bears may appear. This is why our educational program advocates always keeping a safe distance from bears and to NEVER approach any wild animal.

My second favorite bear viewing area is Churchill Manitoba for polar bears. I have had the pleasure of viewing and photographing polar bears from small tracked vehicles to the back of pick-up trucks around the town site with some short, guarded walks. Walking is only recommended in a few limited places with warning signs telling you to avoid certain areas. As big as polar bears are, they still can become covered with snow and undetectable until they pop up and you are able to see their black nose and eyes. Just like the brown bears at McNeil River and Admiralty Island, polar bears give off a very passive disinterested fa├žade that can be misleading to some tourists.

My favorite places for hiking and viewing grizzly bears is the Rocky Mountain Corridor, especially in Teton, Glacier, and Yellowstone National Parks and Banff and Jasper in Canada. Spectacular hiking trails allow visitors to discover snow-capped, cathedral-like mountains, turquoise lakes, and vibrant wildflowers changing every week. By staying on the trails during daylight hours and only viewing and photographing from designated areas, there are often great opportunities to view and photograph wildlife off in the distance, including grizzly bears, from trails and observational areas.

Through my 30 years of traveling in bear country, I have had the privilege of traveling with some of the best bear biologists and wildlife management specialists in North America. They have taught me a lot about safety and wildlife stewardship. It comes down to some basic, common-sense advice: enjoy wildlife responsibly by not approaching or feeding. Help them stay wild!