A cool breeze whipped wisps of evening fog across the wet pavement as state park rangers Danny Quillen and Chris Early drove through Kingdom Come State Park, evaluating the potential demands of their evening shift. Working together like the gears of a well-oiled machine, they made their rounds through various areas of the park.
"It looks like it's going to be pretty quiet this evening. There aren't many people stirring. There won't be much action in the park tonight from people or bears because of the weather," Early said.
The return of the black bear to Kentucky has changed the responsibilities of state park rangers in eastern Kentucky considerably. As law enforcement officers who have successfully completed rigid training at the police academy, one might think the primary role of park rangers is to see that park visitors are in compliance with all regulations and laws of the state. While that remains part of their task, public relations has become a major part of the responsibilities they face on a daily basis.
"It is our job to enforce all state laws on park premises, but we also do simple and important things like giving directions, answering questions, traffic control and trying to maintain public safety in the presence of bears," Early said. "At times we are called in to help with events in other state parks, such as for the Mountain Laurel Festival. We also may be called on to give assistance to local police. Mostly, though, our concern is the safe monitoring of the park."
"While we want all of our visitors to feel welcome and enjoy the experience of seeing a bear, we also must try to make such encounters safe for visitors and not allow our visitors to reinforce bad or potentially dangerous habits to the bears, such as feeding them, baiting them, leaving food scraps out or spotlighting."
The typical park ranger shift is eight hours, but that may turn into a much longer shift depending on the number of campers at any given park, increased bear activity or dealing with law breakers. The return of the black bear to the eastern part of the state has resulted in increased sightings in park areas and an increased number of visitors hoping to see bears. Rangers spend most of their enforcement time on the road, circulating through the park area.
When a bear makes an appearance, traffic often becomes congested, creating a hazard that must be corrected. People often get out of their vehicles, leaving them abandoned in the middle of the road, to watch a bear pillaging through a trash can. While seeing a bear may be thrilling, there is also potential danger in the event. It is important for the public to realize that bears are wild animals, and although not usually aggressive toward humans, there is still the possibility of unexpected behavior.
"The only predictable thing about a bear," states Quillen, "is that they are unpredictable. There is no set time they will show up, no particular place, nor exact behavior. While we hope that all of our visitors might get the experience of seeing a bear, it is still our responsibility to try and keep such sightings safe for people and bears."
When asked about most memorable experiences, both rangers had several to share.
"One of the incidents that sticks out in my mind happened on an Easter Sunday. A group of people was here with their children, hiding Easter eggs in the field. We had taken two people into custody and were putting them in our patrol vehicle when this group of people started running past us," Quillen said. "When we asked what was going on, they informed us that there were bears eating their Easter eggs. Sure enough, a mother and two cubs were going along, sniffing out the hidden Easter eggs and eating them. We had to scare them away, and called Fish and Wildlife to intervene while we took care of the situation we were dealing with. When we returned, all three bears were back at it and had to be tranquilized, processed and released."
Both agreed that the part of their job they enjoy most is meeting new people and working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to do the hands-on processing of bears. They have also assisted with the ongoing research through the University of Kentucky. This includes safely taking the bear into captivity, tranquilizing the bear, drawing blood samples, collecting data such as height and weight, tagging or collaring the bear and finally releasing the bear safely back into the wild.
Rangers are also responsible for "hazing interventions" of nuisance bears. When a bear becomes too familiar with humans, their territory, and human sources of food, they may become a danger. If it is easier for them to get food associated with humans, they will continue to do that instead of successfully feeding in the wild. This bad behavior becomes a habit that they may also teach to their cubs. Once a bear gets into a pattern of this type of behavior, they lose their natural fear of man.
Hazing includes the use of a 12-gauge shot gun fired in the air directly over a bear, or firing rubber bullets. People often misunderstand the importance of discouraging bears from routinely showing up in the wrong places. While people enjoy seeing the bears, and do not like to have rangers scare them away, it is important to discourage bears from bad and unsafe behavior.
Around 1997, there was only about one bear sighting per month. By 2000, sightings had increased to two or three per week. These bears were assumed to be adult males searching for females during the mating season. The first official documentation of a reproducing bear at Kingdom Come State Park came in 2001.
"We actually knew there were reproducing bears in the park before Fish and Wildlife acknowledged their presence. Although a mother and three cubs had been seen in the park, there was no official documentation of them as in photographs or videotapes. So, I pretty much camped out here for about a week with a video camera. I had seen the bears on several occasions, and I was going to prove it to somebody," Quillen says with a grin.
A big part of the rangers' job has become answering questions for the visiting public.
"The most frequently asked question we get is, "Where are the bears?" Early said. "We also get a lot of funny questions from people who aren't trying to be funny