Don’t pet the wildlife
Writers on the range
“I can’t believe that person is getting that close.”
Just off the road stands a bull elk — a 700-pound animal with three-foot tall antlers — and a woman is standing not even four feet away from it. All it would take is for the elk to make one sudden swing of its head and the woman would be hospitalized.
“Here we go again,” I say, rolling my eyes. Then I hop out of the van, instructing my clients to wait here while I try to handle the situation.
I work as a privately contracted guide to lead visitors on wildlife and geology tours of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Leaning on my wildlife biology degree and six years of living in the Rocky Mountain West, I educate clients about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. At 22 million acres, it’s the largest nearly intact temperate ecosystem on earth. Almost all plants and animals that existed prior to human presence in North America still exist here today. So people flock here from all over the world to see wildlife as it is truly meant to be — wild.
“Excuse me!” I shout from the roadside, trying to get the woman’s attention. “Please back up!”
She doesn’t even flinch.
I try again. “Excuse me, woman in the white top and white hat! Please give this animal at least 75 feet of space!”
She still ignores me.
Although I do not have the authority that comes with being a park ranger, I do have George N. Wallace’s advice in his paper, Authority of the Resource. He says the average person can claim the power to confront someone whose behavior harms the environment or the public’s ability to pursue recreational activities in that environment. If, for example, you see someone approaching wildlife too closely, you can speak up.
Far too many times this summer, I’ve had to speak up. In May, Grand Teton National Park recorded over 360,000 visitors, a 30% increase from May 2019. In July, Yellowstone had over a million visitors, a record. There’s a rule of thumb: more people mean more opportunities for them to get into trouble with wildlife.
Because some of these visitors were traveling to wild places for the first time, things sometimes went south quickly. Yet most rule-breakers were lucky enough to walk away unscathed; few even recognized the danger they were in.
But it’s heartbreaking to watch elk or bears become agitated by human ignorance. It is even more heartbreaking to know that these instances will only increase as more people visit these national parks. Wildlife may change their behavior, heading farther into the backcountry and therefore farther from view.
I love my job. I love driving around these two magnificent national parks and watching animals live their lives every day. Hearing the mating call of a bull elk echo through the valley at sunrise is nothing short of magical. Watching grizzly bears dig for food in preparation for hibernation never gets old.
Because these are experiences I want everyone to share, here are some tips for visitors:
Know the wildlife-viewing regulations of the area you visit. National parks require you to stay 25 yards away from most wildlife and 100 yards away from predators. Check relevant websites before you travel.
Follow the instructions of authority figures. Often, this will be a park or forest ranger stationed in wildlife hotspots.
Don’t block the road. Please do not stop in the middle of the road! And turn your car off so everyone can enjoy the silence.
Book a wildlife-viewing tour. While no wildlife guide will ever guarantee an animal sighting, experts know their stuff and will keep you — and the animals — safe.
Carry binoculars. This is an incredible tool for viewing wildlife from a distance. I never leave home without my pair.
Become an authority for the resource. Speak up if you see someone breaking the rules, and don’t be discouraged if you get a nasty response. You have the right to protect everyone’s access to nature.
When I return to the van after the woman finally returned to her car, my clients immediately begin expressing their disbelief.
“I’ve heard stories and seen videos of people acting like that,” one woman says, “but to see it first-hand is something else entirely.”
“You’d think people would know better,” says another.
Kelsey Wellington is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She works as a private guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
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Call me crazy, but I enjoy public transportation, especially since I’ve moved West, where I work at various ski town restaurants.