Is social media ruining our nature excursions?
By Daryl L. Hunter

Facebook display

Example of how I quit making a post
Grizzly 399, traffic jam
Bear jams are where I met my future friends

Social media, the curse and blessing of the twenty-first century. A focus on the evolution of the problem inflicted on nature, ways of to mitigate how it affects our beautiful places, our wildlife, our experience. Dichotomies and conundrums to ponder. 

Since the advent of the digital photography and its ease of use and economy after initial investment, America and the world have hit the road and the road comes back to us on our social media.

As a nature photographer of the Yellowstone Region and beyond I have met all my best friends in wildlife jams, when the photography slowed, the visiting was good.  I developed what I called my grizzly bear network; many of us would keep each other abreast of what was going on. Networking helped our portfolios grow exponentially.

Fast forward too today, upon rolling out of bed in the morning and pouring my first cup of coffee, I go to the computer and open Facebook.  I’ll reply to any comments I have received then scroll the newsfeed so I can see the photo harvest of those I follow, I laugh or cry at a few memes, but most importantly, farm it for destinations to put on the bucket list or for future photo travel, or yesterdays wildlife sighting that I can utilize after visiting the bottom of my coffee cup.

In the early days of forums or Flickr, an early photo sharing website, then Facebook, any photo of a grizzly bear was welcomed with accolades and envy.  Then followers, fans & friends started planning trips so they could attain grizzly bear photos too.  After a decade grizzly bear photos became nearly as ubiquitous as selfies and the trophy meal. A grizzly photo was no longer a unique trophy.  That though didn’t stop us from wanting more.

Photographer, Procida Italy
A happy guest somewhere in Italy

I also acquired friends, fans, and became follower/fan of photographers around the world; Instagram became a thing. I devoured then lusted over the beautiful landscapes of the plethora of beautiful places and wild things I had to visit, my bucket list overflowed as my portfolio blossomed. My Facebook newsfeed was a never-ending travel brochure.

It wasn’t long before people would pay for me to show them the wonders of Grand Teton and Yellowstone, then beyond. Photographers at locales everywhere fell into the same opportunities. I wrote a book that geotagged every landscape vantage point and wildlife hotspot in Grand Teton Park. Websites like “Location Scout” are exclusively dedicated to geotaged beautiful spots worldwide.  I had already been publishing a website about the Greater Yellowstone Region since 2000. Hundreds of photographers across the world did the same for their local piece of heaven.  Our tour guests then share their photo harvest on their social networks.  

Social media and geotagging has literally helped put places on the map as desirable travel destinations. For better or worse, many travelers are now motivated to book travel because of Instagram, seeking to capture their own frame of an iconic location or celebrity critter.

The influencers of Instagram are huge drivers of travel as well, outdoor gear sponsors give influencers a stipend for travel then soon anonymous places of wonder become destinations. Millions around the world strive to become influencers; I’d be first in line if younger. What fun it would be to get that twenty-two year old hottie to travel with me to pose in at the waterfall, or sit in a pitched tent drinking coffee looking out at the amazing landscape out the door of the tent. Heck I wish I had opportunities like Instagram in my youth.

Instagram Influencer
Instagram Influencer

YouTube and other viral video mediums have also brought extra attention (pressure) to the best places and creature haunts.  Yellowstone idiocy is a favorite to the evening news, reckless tourists taunting bison, visitors running from bear families crossing a bridge in a panic. Youtubers crossing unstable geyser fields where they could fall thorough the shallow crust and be boiled alive.  All drive more visitors to see the ubiquitous bison and bears that all the sudden seem oddly approachable. Elsewhere mass media exposure of the or how cool the river looks where the selfie stick dude fell off the cliff at Horseshoe Bend. These viral videos also drive bucket list destinations.

A massive influx of visitors to an area whether it is a national park, popular sea shore, or a formerly unknown texture filled gem of the Southwestern desert; remote Arctic Island, an Asian temple, is proving to wreck havoc on the photo experience as well as the eco-health of the destination.  The exponential growth of vehicle traffic, foot traffic, and reckless selfie stick idiots, our parks, recreation areas, and landmarks are starting to show their wear if you can get a parking spot. Millions of us are trying to find the next great place to expose then overexpose.

Today it s nearly impossible in Yellowstone to get a parking place in many of Yellowstone’s coolest spots. In Canyonlands National Park you must show up two hours before sunrise If you wish to get a coveted spot in front of Iconic Mesa Arch, in Zion you have to take a bus. A popular trend in places is a lottery system to limit visitors to a number that the environment isn’t trampled. Summertime brings a waiting queue for cars to see Banff’s amazing Moraine Lake, one car in for every car that exits.  One day I was turned away from Glacier National Park because there was nowhere to park.  2020 brought an end to tripod use at the Slot Canyons of Page Arizona as it slowed the flow of the thousands on tour; Antelope Canyon is only the most recent of many.

A bucket list is made for overflowing
A bucket list is made for overflowing

I live in a town of 108 in Idaho, the closest trail into the mountains near my home is so crowded I no longer hike there in summer, it isn’t local license plates in the parking lot, and how do people find out about this backwater? This is my fault because I published an internet trail description about it not understanding what it would do, reflecting on this, instead of deleting the article I thought it better to warn of how you can’t find a parking place and it was no longer a visit with solitude.

This is not unique to the USA, upon being hired to do a speaking engagement in Naples Italy, I needed to find out where I wanted to shoot.  I googled “landscape photos Italy” and discovered amazing gems, Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast. Upon my arrival, I found crowds and traffic that would make Yosemite blush as an underachiever. To get a photo and parking spot at Lake Como’s village of Bellagio required showing up before the dawn. Ditto for every iconic spot most anywhere. What are we doing?

Because of the increasing popularity of wildlife photography, the National Parks have responded with either more rules and enforcement, or the desertion there of,  in favor of area closures.  With the popularity of the wolf re-introduction in Yellowstone viewing distance for predators increased from 25 yards to 100 yards.  Back then though; if you were safely in your car you could remain close and able to attain good photos.  The growing population of Grizzly Bears of the Greater Yellowstone, and the soon to follow traffic jams, inspired Grand Teton Park to mandate moving your car if a grizzly or wolf approached within 100-yards  rationalizing safety concerns but it was really about keeping the traffic moving; this effectively making predator portraits illegal.  This makes Alaska the default destination for grizzly close-ups.  If you are considering this though make reservations for lodging in Katami National Park a year in advance because the secret is out, you have all seen the images on Facebook.

In 2010 the Wildlife Management Brigade in Grand Teton Park didn’t show up until about the third week in May, when the early bears emerged in April and there were so few of us, the rangers who were there were very lenient with distance enforcement because there was no traffic. Silly and ignorant “us” though, we took our photos and posted them to social media without delay. Our followers packed their bags and jumped in their cars to join us.  By ignorance, our ego ruined our experience.

Grizzly Bear Reflection
I often caption like this, others have eight followed my lead or adopted their own brand of ambiguity.

Social networking ethics considerations

Loge eared owl
Where 5 long eared owls were nesting was a good photo opp for years until the GPS locations was givin out of a Boise Birding group. Many traveld across the state until the birds moved. #dontkissandtell

The popularity of nature photography has led many of us assessing and reassess our ethical practices. Organizations like the North American Nature Photographers Association and publications like Outdoor Photographer provide guidance around human and wildlife interaction. There have been many features about ethical wildlife photography strives to minimize impact and disturbance on those animals. This is a different take.

Thank goodness there is a growing reverse trend where photographers have stopped geotagging photos to prevent a location from being overrun by those looking to replicate a shot. I am trying to follow suit.

A dozen years ago when a, then rare, grizzly showed up, many of us in my ad hoc grizzly bear network would get on our phones and call or text as many friends as we could fit between shutter clicks. Time passed, and without discussion most of us decided although this superficially was good for us, we were collectively exponentially expanding the crowding problem; we grew away from the practice.  Today I only text my friends that are also in the vicinity at the time; hence, not multiplying the expansion of the notification circle.

When I’m traveling, friends and followers like to see what I’m discovering; at least that is my optimistic perception.  It is human nature to want to share exciting things we are doing.  Some like me are promoting photo tours or fine art prints and have a financial benefit of doing so. This makes me one of the most egregious offenders to the problem I am grappling with here.  Some say that cat is out of the bag and now what we started innocently enough is an unstoppable freight train, but is it.

While looking for photos for my Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide by hapenstance I came across this most amazing of lakes, it reminded me of a beautiful but famous lake in Italy and I had never heard of this one and I have been all over the Greater Yellowstone for over 30 years. Since it had been such a well kept secret I didn't identify it on my website either. Many amazing places need to retain their solitude, so a few can have theirs. #dontkissandtell.

Some questions of ourselves could be; have I become so addicted to the dopamine rush of the twitter comment or Instagram share?  Is my ego in such a place it needs to be constantly massaged with positive reinforcement from Facebook? Is my tour business more important than the destination I sell?

I was sad when I saw this as I know sombody had starte feeding this facebook sensation great grey. Soon after he was hit by a car.

Should I post this Owl photo right away, or should I wait until the event is finished?  Should I tell the world where this trophy buck hangs out?  Should I tell the world when to show up in readiness when a grizzly will come out of hibernation so a thousand of your friends can be there for the event and eagerly await your prediction.

We have made celebrities of bears, lions etc, you know who they are. It is argued that their celebrity protects them, and this is half-true. I though have met hunters who consider Grand Tetons queen grizzly a better trophy because of her fame; was that the demise of Cecil the Lion. Yes because of their fan base it makes them Icons for fighting government policy, certainly a double-edged sward.  Wyoming Game and Fish in conjunction with Bridger Teton National Forest talked about killing Jackson Hole’s newest celebrity grizzly bear proclaiming highway safety as often it was seen along a major highway. Because of this bear's back-story, it has compelling human interest so Jackson’s newspapers always post to their Facebook the latest Facebook album of the latest sighting so everyone who follows can join the mob or put said celebrity on their “must see” list for their next visit to the Greater Yellowstone.  The bear lived through the last season; lets wish the bear continued life in the upcoming one by not shouting from the rooftops when she moves from the bottom of the mountain to the top.

Some of us have quit identifying the grizzlies and captioning with ambiguous locations, sitting on the photo until the otter, owl, bear can’t be found in that location any longer unless it has already been plastered all over social media.

In conclusion, I (we) have a dichotomy of motivations to decide upon for our natural resources. Do I want to promote my tour business, photography, or ego while simultaneously decaying the experience by over-exposure leading to overcrowding? A conundrum? It shouldn’t be; there was a time when we were blissfully ignorant of the power of social media and the damage we were a part of –That time is behind us.

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I have spent thousands of hours researching for, and creating content to create a market for my photography, for 35+ years I have been roaming this land for landscape and adventure photos and content for this effort. although this was the  greatest of adventures exploring every corner of the Greater Yellowstone and sharing it some compensation would be greatly appreciated.

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