With grizzly bears and people coming closer and closer to one another in the front country of Grand Teton National Park, officials have refined their guidelines as to how close people can be to wildlife.
The need for the revisions arose as more and more visitors took to the roofs of their vehicles to photograph bears and, in at least two instances, the bears took exception and charged the vehicles, according to park officials.
While park guidelines long have said visitors should not approach within 100 yards of bears and wolves, or within 25 yards from other animals, including nesting birds, the updated regulation now specifies that "remaining, viewing, or engaging in any activity within 100 yards of bears or wolves" is against park regulations.
With highly photogenic grizzly sows No. 399 and No. 610 -- and, this year, their five cubs -- regularly frequenting the park's front country, more and more photographers realized that they could get some great shots of them if they just waited long enough, Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said Thursday.
"They sit and park for 12 hours a day where they think they’re going to get shots of these bears," she said. "Other people who drive by think, 'Oh, that’s a great thing to do.'”
The result is not just road shoulders lined with cars and trucks, but with people sitting atop those cars and trucks hoping for a great photograph to return home with, said Ms. Skaggs. When the bears arrive to this mass of humanity, problems can quickly arise, she said.
With recent instances of cubs running between parked vehicles, "it's only going to be a matter of time we fear before one of those cubs gets hit," the spokeswoman said, or "the mother is going to turn on somebody because of the congested condition and she's going to be startled or agitated by how close somebody is."
The change has not been well-received by all. In Jackson, Wyoming, wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen told the Jackson Hole News and Guide that park officials were being unreasonable.
“I seriously doubt if previous superintendents would have gone so far as to say people in their vehicles can’t stop within 100 yards of bears or wolves,” Mr. Tom Mangelsen said. “I think this is laughable and incredibly retaliatory.”
Back at the park, Ms. Skaggs said there was nothing "retaliatory" about the revision, but that it was necessary due to the changing patterns in wildlife movements. When the previous regulation, which prohibited approaching within 100 yards of bears and wolves, was written, it was aimed at the backcountry traveler, she said.
"Conditions have changed greatly," Ms. Skaggs said. "Having that wording in the compendium seems logical when you think that whichever superintendent ever wrote that provision, on foot or on stock, was how people would have encountered grizzly bears. But things have changed."
Park officials say the "tremendous interest" in viewing the sows and their cubs, as well as other wildlife in the park, has created "large wildlife jams and caused situations where the well being of both visitors and animals may be in jeopardy. Wildlife viewing opportunities — and wildlife jams in particular — can be very fluid situations due to the unpredictable behavior and movement of animals, the ebb and flow of traffic, and other factors."
In a press release she wrote, Ms. Skaggs said that "after a bear charged two different vehicles on two separate occasions while people stood on their car roof, park managers recognized the need to more strictly enforce the established regulations for wildlife viewing to better secure the protection of animals and ensure visitor safety."
On Thursday the park spokeswoman said officials do want visitors to enjoy seeing wildlife, because by seeing animals in their natural environments they gain a better appreciation of wildlife and a better understanding of the value of national parks and the role they play in preserving wildlife.
“We definitely don’t want to take that opportunity away," she said, "we just want to manage it so we protect the bears.”
The revision to the regulations could perhaps play a key role in protecting visitors who drive the Moose-Wilson Road in late summer and early fall to see wildlife. Black bears long have been drawn to the area because of the berry harvest.
"Our greatest fear is when a girzzly bear ends up in that mix," Ms. Skaggs said. "When a grizzly bear figures out that's a good location, then it kind of adds an extra layer of concern and sensitity to it. We may end up having to have rangers out there and have people drive slowly by there and not stop."
In the end, she said, "We're offering people this lifetime opportunity to see wildlife in its natural world, and yet keep people safe. It's been a challenge. It's been something that we're not taking lightly."