Do we really care about the animals we claim to love? Or are we simply after a shot that will wow our friends on social media? As some of you know, I posted a brief rant on Instagram story last month about a handful of people in Grand Teton National Park getting dangerously close to a mother grizzly bear (Bear #793, aka “Blondie”) and her two young cubs. It was both horrifying and mind boggling to watch people jump out of their cars (and park them in the middle of the road) and walk towards the trio of bears with their cameras and iPhones. There were a few rangers on site attempting to control the growing crowd, but the ratio was not in their favor. I pulled off the road in a safe spot, remained in my car and shot the bears on a long lens out my window. When a ranger told me to move my Jeep, I did. Actually, I ended up leaving, because that seemed like the best thing to do.
Before that circus started, Blondie was happily digging around for food off the side of a lesser known dirt road in the park. Despite some concerns over her health earlier this summer, Blondie and her cubs appeared to be thriving. Though there was a small crowd of people, they were a safe distance away and the bears didn’t seem at all bothered by their presence. There were several rangers there as well, and the 3:10 ranger to photographer ratio seemed to be perfect. After snapping some shots of the bears and chatting with park officials, I decided to move along. When I came back to the same intersection several hours later on my way home, I was shocked. There were probably 50 cars parked on the side of the road, and there were DOZENS of people out of their vehicles, many of whom were wandering towards the bears. One of the rangers got into a shouting match with a driver and there was so much commotion and honking, Blondie was getting visibly stressed. At one point she stood up and faced the row of people that had gathered behind her, and she seemed to want to cross the road, but couldn’t without some sort of conflict. The three or four rangers were scolding as many people as they could, but as far as I could see, no citations were issued because their attention was literally being pulled in every direction.
When I was in Banff National Park in 2016, I had a similar experience with tourists and a grizzly, and several days after that, somewhere along the Icefields Parkway, I nearly hit a juvenile black bear. Stunned, I pulled over to regain my composure, and a few minutes later I noticed the bear was munching on berries, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I nearly took it out. Since I was already pulled over and the bear was a safe distance from my car, I rolled down my window and snapped a few photos. About a minute later, another vehicle screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, whipped around and pulled up right behind me. The man behind the wheel immediately hopped out and started walking up the hill towards the bear, and his wife and two children got out of the car as well. “Hey, you should back in your car,” I said as loudly as possible, without yelling. He made eye contact with me, so I know he heard me. He kept going. Then I raised my voice. “If a ranger sees you, you’ll get a citation,” I yelled. “Get back in your car!” By then, the bear heard me and took off, and the man gave me an angry look, since I had clearly ruined his photo. This is the kind of behavior that absolutely HAS to stop, and I’ve seen it happen so many times, I felt like it was time to write a blog about it.
Per national park rules in the United States, you’re supposed to be 100 yards (300 feet) from bears, whether you’re in your vehicle or on foot, and you’re absolutely not supposed to approach them. You should never feed wildlife, nor should you harass or chase any animal. Food storage is also very important in bear country, whether you’re in an area where there are black or grizzly bears. When hiking in bear country you should travel in groups, carry bear spray and make noise, and if you ever encounter a bear, remain as calm as possible and don’t run. (NPS has a page with all kinds of resources and information HERE, if you’d like to read it.) It should be easy enough to understand these rules and follow them, but what I saw last month just shows that people a) are not aware of the rules and b) believe they’re above the rules, because their photo matters more than the safety of the bear. When a bear attacks and kills a human, the animal is often put down, though sows protecting their cubs are sometimes given passes. I won’t argue with the fact that euthanasia is the right choice in some situations, but in recent years there have been a few incidents where I firmly believe it wasn’t the right decision.
Doing your part to protect wild animals means understanding the rules — and following them. If you see someone else who isn’t, don’t be afraid to speak up, and please pass the information in this blog post along.