The Tower Region of Yellowstone National Park is known as a black bear mecca. In fact, the stretch of road between Tower Falls and Roosevelt might be one of the best places to watch black bears anywhere in the world.
For years, though, it was a stretch of road that was dangerous, with few pullouts and many sharp turns. Then, two years ago, Yellowstone re-built the road to make it safer, presumably with the understanding that the bears weren’t going anywhere, so why fight the inevitable bear jams. Makes sense.
But then it got weird.
Yellowstone hired a new head ranger for the Tower Region. And he hates bear jams. So they had to be stopped.
Are people lawfully pulled over, across the vaunted white line? Yup, but lets shut it down anyway. Did one ranger say people could stand in a specific spot to take photos without being in harms way? Yes, but why not arbitrarily pull that line back so no one can see the animal any more.
This is unpleasant for the tourist. But you know what? It is doubly unpleasant for the bears.
The old policies of using a cracker shell gun to scare bears away from the road seem like the days of yore compared to the new directives. Make the bears look ugly to photographers: paintball them! Throw rocks at bears! Actually, better yet, throw rocks at bear cubs! Better still, throw rocks at newly born cubs of the year while never slowing down in your truck!
In fairness, the actual policy with rocks is to gently roll a few pebbles down the hill in order to naturally spook the animal into retreating, but only when the situation is unsafe. It’s a great policy.
Unfortunately, in the Tower Ranger District three times we watched rangers hurl large rocks directly at bears and once watched the head ranger spray paint balls from his vehicle without even stopping to see if his aim was, I don’t know, going to hit a cub in the eye. Which it nearly did.
In each situation, the bear had already safely crossed the road and was leaving on their own volition. Think about that. Bears were targeted for harassment after they left the road and were already walking out of view.
Look, I understand that even with road improvements, there are dangerous sections where it’s unsafe for people to stop and observe animals. I’m all for shutting down those jams.
I also get that tourists – most lacking the proper education of how to interact with wild animals (which is why I hate the word ‘tourons’, as for the most part they’re not dumb, they’re just ill informed) – will cross the line. So too will professional photographers from time to time.
But where and when is it possibly appropriate to throw a rock at an animal, most especially a cub? And when is it appropriate to lose your cool time and again at tourists who don’t know any better?
Tense, unsafe situations must be stressful and day-in, day-out it must certainly wear you down. It’s a hard, hard job rangers are asked to do and for which I have complete empathy.
However, here’s the thing: being professional and having compassion for the animal is in the job description. As my mom would say, if you don’t like it, go sell shoes at Ingedews (you’re welcome for the plug, Vancouver shoe store Ingledews).
Seriously: If you can’t be calm in the face of pressure, don’t do it. If your passion is law enforcement and not animal-human conflict resolution, be a State Trooper. If you don’t have the tolerance for educating seemingly stupid people, change your profession.
For the same reason Jill, a teacher, doesn’t scream at a kid for being late on a homework assignment for the tenth time that week and then proceed to throw paper and pens at the student’s face, rangers should be able to rise to the occasion and strike the right balance.
And many do. Ranger John, as well as Ranger Ed, have given years of excellent service to the Tower Region and have always maintained their professionalism. In the Lake District, Ranger Eric and his team always take the time to educate rather than employ drive-by law enforcement. In Canada’s National Parks, for the most part, reasonable wildlife watchers and photographers are looked upon as allies rather than enemies.
Yet in Tower, directives for the region appear (last year at least) to be slipping back into the Stone Age and the experience is unpleasant for the visitor and potentially devastating for the bears.
Sows call this area home because the road offers protection from backcountry boars. To send them packing is akin to signing their death warrant. In an ideal world, maybe it would be survival of the fittest, but that changed the moment Yellowstone added roads to the equation and unless the park plans on doing away with cars, you can’t force the slowest reproducing mammals in the world to learn new tricks on the fly.
And has anyone stopped to consider what the takeaway might be for a bear if it is hit in the head by a rock? I don’t know, might this experience leave it aggressive towards humans rather than scared of them? This can’t be the best game plan in a park littered with hiking trails.
Plus, why spend millions making it safe to watch the wildlife people visit Yellowstone to see when your management creates policies to outlaw that very activity? Especially in light of the major report, co-written by Yellowstone’s very own, very well respected head Bear Biologist, stating that bear viewing is worth the cost for Yellowstone.
In writing this post, I’m almost certainly asking to be targeted by some at safe bear jams in and around Tower, which means I won’t be able to spend time with the bears that I love in this area or get the photo I normally would have been able to capture. This is why many photographers can’t afford to say anything.
For me though, I have zero interest in watching bear cubs be hit by rocks or watch tourists, not acting unreasonably, be berated without context. I’d much rather watch bears and help rangers where I’m welcome – Sedge Bay, Maligne Lake Road – than spend time, and money, in this part of Yellowstone until the circumstances change for the better.