LOS ANGELES — At first glance, the image looks like a slice of woodland life: a mother bear warily eying a photographer who wandered too close to her and her cub as it lay in a grassy field at her feet.
But the picture, taken by an unidentified Yosemite National Park ranger, takes a heart-wrenching turn when accompanied by a lengthy post on the park’s Facebook page that implores motorists to slow down lest they have a fatal wildlife encounter — like the one that killed the young bear cub last week.
“We get this call a lot. Too much, to be honest,” the Friday post begins. “ ‘Bear hit by vehicle, dead on the side of the road.’ Sadly, it’s become routine.”
The ranger explains how part of the job is to find dead animals, move their bodies away from roadsides to protect other animals who may be scavenging the carcasses, collect samples and measurements for research and fill out a report on the death.
The data collected on bears struck and killed by vehicles are meant to help prevent future fatal collisions.
Dozens of black bears are struck by vehicles each year, according to the organization Keep Bears Wild, with vehicle collisions one of the leading causes of black bear deaths in Yosemite.
“I try to remember how many times I’ve done this now and, truthfully, I don’t know,” the post reads. “This is not what any of us signs up for, but it’s a part of the job nonetheless.”
Word about the dead bear came into the ranger’s office around 4 p.m., though the animal had been killed hours earlier. After searching the roadside for some time, the ranger spotted the young cub.
“It’s a new cub — couldn’t be much more than 6 months old, now balled up and lifeless under a small pine tree. For a moment I lose track of time as I stand there staring at its tiny body.
“The least I can do is find it a nice place to be laid,” the ranger recalls in the social media post and carries the body deeper into the woods.
While examining the cub, which weighed barely 25 pounds, the ranger discovers the animal was a female, lamenting “perhaps she would have had cubs of her own.”
During the task, the ranger is startled to hear a noise and spots an adult bear watching from the nearby brush. The ranger initially scares the bear away, but it soon returns, making an eerie sound.
“From behind me there’s a deep toned but soft sounding grunt. It’s a vocalization, the kind sows (female bears) make to call to their cubs,” the ranger writes.
“This bear is the mom, and she never left her cub. My heart sinks. It’s been nearly six hours and she still hasn’t given up on her cub.
“The calls to the cub continue, sounding more pained each time,” the ranger describes. “Here I am, standing between a grieving mother and her child. I feel like a monster.”
The ranger creeps away shortly, but not before setting up a remote camera intended to capture “the sad reality” behind the bear mortality statistics: “Every year we report the number of bears that get hit by vehicles, but numbers don’t always paint a picture.”
The Facebook post concludes with a plea to the public: “When traveling through Yosemite, we are all just visitors in the home of countless animals and it is up to us to follow the rules that protect them. Go the speed limit, drive alertly, and look out for wildlife. Protecting Yosemite’s black bears is something we can all do.”
By Tuesday, more than 5,000 grief-stricken Facebook users responded to the ranger’s story, with one user calling it “one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read.”
The post had been shared more than 61,000 times and garnered thanks from many users.
“Thank you for your story and giving this cub’s shortened life a purpose,” Sydney Goosen commented. “People are (in Yosemite) to enjoy the beauty but fail to see their actions slowly diminish it.”
Story by Rachel Schnalzer, Los Angeles Times.