Yellowstone wildlife closures - a few thoughts
By Daryl L. Hunter

 

I went to Yellowstone to photograph grizzly bear with three new cubs; it seems as though they are little for so short of a time. In May they are lucky to be 25-pound balls of fur sporting bright curious eyes, and by September they are 50 pounds. The window to capture them is short. After a year of a successful cancer fight I needed some grizzly cub therapy.

Cute and little spring cubs

Upon my arrival to where a grizzly sow had been hanging out I was disappointed my long drive was to be fruitless, the road was closed to stopping and all the turnouts had been blocked so nobody could stop to see the bears.  Now, there weren’t any bears there at the moment, it was just a blanket closure of the area.

Now; a little background. Male grizzlies kill grizzly cubs whenever possible because grizzly sows won’t breed when they have cubs. Male grizzlies have no paternal instinct or cares; hence, the killing of the cubs is an efficient strategy for their primary goal –breeding.

Some of Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park’s grizzly sows have learned that when they keep in close proximity to humans, they are in territory male grizzlies would rather avoid.   They have concluded that although the hordes of tourists and photographers are annoying, they aren’t dangerous; the male grizzly is.

It is a fact Yellowstone is getting crowded, and some in these crowds can be reckless and stupid. In my opinion, it is becoming crowded because an exponential number of people see pictures of grizzly bears on social media then want to go get some photos themselves. A survey a few years ago showed visitors expect to see grizzlies on their trip to Yellowstone. Blue collar Joe spends a lot of money so his kids can see a geyser and a bear. In my opinion, Yellowstone owes them more than a 35-mile per hour drive by.

Lots of turnouts, no grizzly viewing allowed

So I drive up for the day and am disappointed because there is no stopping allowed where the grizzly bear is, oh well I lost a day and since I have lived here since 1987 I already have thousands of photos; quite a different story though for the guy that drove his family from Memphis or Stockton to see a grizzly bear in the wild.

Every year the grizzly bear viewing gets worse as the popularity of grizzly bear viewing and their popularity grows. Yes, traffic becomes a problem; yes controlling viewers becomes a problem. Oh, what to do?

In this case, the park cut off access to the bears, traffic problem solved, tourist management problem eliminated, no more man power required; success! Oh, except for the visitor that came to Yellowstone to see the bear. The problem with this traffic/ tourist fix is the welfare of the bear cubs, this grizzly sow has factored bear jams into her survival plan, what about her and her cubs?

Since I couldn’t photograph bears this particular day I sought out a few rangers and wildlife management workers for their thoughts.

I asked one why the road was closed; she responded that because of the crowds the grizzly mom was getting very nervous about all the people.

Now keep in mind, the people are on the road and when the sow is facing the road, behind her is a roadless area 15+ miles deep and 25 miles wide; hence, she has made a choice, and the choice is she is safer by the humans then a huge wilderness full of male grizzly bears.

Grizzly sows with new cubs have options and they choose the safety of the road because of the crowds.

I replied to the ranger this fact that the biologists have acknowledged this, and she looked at her feet then agreed as she realized I wasn’t a tourist from New York City.

Previously before seeking out rangers I got a hold of some friends from West Yellowstone that had been in the park daily for some updates and to ask about the road closures. I was told that after the no stopping zone was initiated one of the three cubs disappeared. Since it wasn’t found on the road, it isn’t hard to conclude that it was killed by a male grizzly or lost in the woods to day when the sow was fleeing for a boar.

Another ranger joined the conversation and stated that although the biologists have acknowledged that the sows have learned to factor humans into their survival plan, it isn’t natural, what is natural is for the boar to kill the cubs. I agreed that was the natural way.   It is policy for whenever possible to let nature take its course in Yellowstone.  I then countered; if humans hadn’t become a safety buffer, as a prudent mother she would have found a suitable plan B, but the road closure left her with no buffer at all. Yes, policy is to let nature take its course, but in a park that hosts over four million visitors per year, all things can’t be natural and what once wasn’t natural behavior can become so.

Yellowstone has to juggle the new missions and policies with the old; a mission statement from 1903 states on a sign at the North entrance to Yellowstone says "For The Benefit And Enjoyment Of The People.”

Yellowstone entry sign

A retort I couldn’t withhold; “So the road remains closed so the boar can come kill the remaining cubs?”  Together they looked at their feet.

This anecdote is only the most recent of a long string of memories of wildlife management thwarting the viewing of wildlife. 

Just a heads up to all who plan on a trip to Yellowstone, don’t count on effectively seeing any bears. It isn’t natural for you to participate in a protective zone for them.

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