I should make this preamble before I began posting photos that I took of ‘cute little teddy bears’ from my adventures of camping in various Canadian and US national parks.
It is very dangerous to approach ANY wildlife. As you will see on many signs around the park you are in, it is illegal to feed the wildlife and highly recommended (and the law in a few parks) to stay at least 100 yards away from a bear, wolf, cougar (and other large predators) and 25 yards from all other wildlife when outside of your car.
For three years, I have enjoyed months of wildlife photography, but enjoyed it in a safe and responsible manner (aka zoom lens, inside my car, with a park ranger, etc.)
If you were planning on hittin’ the road and exploring a national park near (or far) from you – make friends with park rangers as they often know how to handle situations when an animal is near. Listen to them – they know (usually). Visitor Centers are also key if you are new to a park. It’s wise to find out what the rules and regulations are and how you stay safe and responsible in a territory where bears, bison, elk, etc. frequent.
If you leave any food or beverage around your campsite unsupervised and a bear is exposed to this food, this bear will be eradicated and the blood of this bear will be on your hands. This actually happened in our camp area this summer (don’t worry: we had the human culprits fined before the bear was able to grab any food).
Given the concern of habituating bears and the omni-present reality that there will be that one person who crosses the line, many have argued that if you see a bear in a national park, you should not stop to watch it or take a photograph, knowing that it will lead to a bear jam. And while I understand this argument, there is an important counterpoint.
Bears – and other indicator species – need large, roadless wilderness in order to survive. While many of these spaces exist in the world, places like Yellowstone and Banff are not and never will be a roadless wilderness. In fact, though the perception is that these wild spaces exist to conserve wildlife, the reality is they were created almost always for the benefit of the people. It’s a fact we have to work with. Many national parks are trying to re-wild their front and back country and put a heightened focus on animal conservation. This is admirable. But roadways and trails (and, frustratingly, towns and golf courses and ski resorts) are here to stay. As a result, this imperfect version of protected wilderness needs to strike a fine balance between animal needs and the bigger picture of helping people foster a love for nature and conservation.
Seeing bears in the wild is a remarkable experience and positive bear (and wildlife) encounters are critical to creating a culture that appreciates and supports conservation. It’s a proven fact that people who have first-hand experience with a region or a specific animal are more likely to believe in its protection. So while most of us can appreciate why many parks discourage bear watching, in my opinion, it’s a futile fight and a misguided one to boot.
Parks like Banff and Yellowstone will never be the kind of wilderness required to maintain functioning populations of large carnivores; however, in order to create the political will to establish such spaces, these parks can assist conservation through land protection, yes, but also can play a more critical role in sparking a love in people for wilderness.
I am very lucky myself that my fiancee studies bear behaviour, has been trained by world renowned bear biologists and bear guides and has had experience of over 20 years photographing and researching not only bears, but many other types of wildlife all across North America. We should all be so lucky to have a guide such as him. But for many people, their ‘guide’ will be rangers and the difference between a good ranger and a bad ranger is stark.
We need parks and rangers to champion policies and people that use wildlife jams as a manageable tool to provide people with first-hand education and positive experiences (and photos) to take home and share with their social networks. Yes, there will be times when a wildlife jam is inappropriate (impact on the animal, impact on traffic, people safety, etc.) and a good ranger knows the difference between a bad jam that can’t happen and a good jam that is safe. And by educating people at jams – and, in a sense, deputizing them to help look-out for animals and people at jams without rangers – creates the conditions for positive experiences and, critically, an environmentally conscious populous.
Yellowstone’s wolf project is a great example of how a park’s policy has led to this difficult balance being achieved and rangers like Yellowstone’s John Kerr are the gold standard in conservation law enforcement.
At the other end of the spectrum (and this is a blog for another day) Kananaskis Country – and their front line conservation officers – are the sad example of what not to do. Anger, intimidation and policy making on the fly is no way to handle people, bears or achieve the balancing act of necessary co-existence.
I hope it helps provide food-for-thought for others who are planning on watching wildlife in national parks. Guidelines exist for a reason and all animals should be respected and given their space. But we also need parks to help people find inspiration from nature and watching/photographing wildlife is a necessary evil to help create real parks that place animals first. It’s a balance, but Yellowstone and Jasper proves it is possible, whereas Kananaskis and Grand Teton remind us work remains to find a better way.
A few links to help you be safe and a responsible guest:
If you would like to purchase any of my photos, please view my gallery at D. Simon Jackson Photography. All proceeds go to the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, which helps to save the endangered spirit bear on the British Columbian coast.