It is hard to believe that the summer season is approaching the halfway point. We have been pretty busy, but we have also gotten to do a lot of exploring.
It seems to me that the bear activity in the park is up from our previous two years’ experience. We certainly have had more activity around and, dare I say, in the campground than in the past. One day while Connie and I were eating breakfast we watched as our ranger came to the campground to take care of the daily business and then leave. Just a few minutes later he reappeared and drove down the road towards the pump house where our water comes from. I turned on my radio to hopefully hear what was going on
Turns out our little bear family, a sow with her two cubs of the year, was now on our side of the river and the ranger was going to try to haze her back to the other side. I gathered my bear spray (really nasty pepper spray in a really big can) and took off down the trail looking for both ranger and bears. I spotted the ranger’s vehicle parked at the pump house, but not the ranger. Then I heard bark being scratched. I looked up in time to see one of the cubs climbing down a tree with mom standing at the base scratching at the bark – possibly a signal to get your fuzzy butt down here before I climb up there and drag you down- and watching the little guy. I radioed the ranger to let him know where the bears were. He acknowledged and said he was on his way back. I watched from the shadow of the ranger’s vehicle for a few minutes. Then the bears came to my side of the vehicle and the little ones showed some interest. Mom seemed to not care too much, but she didn’t let them get too close before she got between them and the truck. They were way too close for my comfort, so I got in the truck and again radioed the ranger to learn his exact location. I didn’t want him walking up from the other side and startling the mom. He told me his location which was about a quarter mile away. I wasn’t feeling a whole lot better about my position and even though I was confident I was safe in the truck, I was still a bit worried. However, the keys were in the ignition, so I could have driven off if mom decided she wanted to test her ability to break into a car. (Yellowstone bears do not break into cars as they have been trained over many generations now to not recognize vehicles as food sources.) Good news for me!
Finally, the bears decided the vehicle wasn’t as interesting as the trees and they walked off. However, they were walking towards the campground and toward where I expected the ranger to come from. Sure enough, I could see the ranger and the momma bear approaching one another. Each was looking to their right and neither saw the other. I radioed the ranger and told him to look left. He did and came back with “Got her, thanks”. He then started to haze the mamma and I was soon more comfortable getting out and helping.
We eventually pushed the trio over the hill away from the campground. I then went back to the campground to start posting “Bears frequenting this area” signs all around the perimeter while the ranger watched for a while longer to make sure they didn’t double back.
As I told Connie, I missed an opportunity to haze the family back across the river when I first made contact with them. However, I found that I had lost my voice when I realized how close I was before seeing them. I had been closer to the same bear last year while trying to protect her and some less than cooperative visitors. That situation was different because I was in the role of protector and there was a single bear involved. Now that she is a mother, she should be more aggressive towards humans who are too close to her cubs. I think that worried me to the point of inaction.
In the aftermath it worries me even more, because someone is going to get too close because she seems so docile and then there will be trouble. We shall remain ever vigilant. I am quite honestly more concerned about the bear’s long term safety than the humans who don’t have the sense to stay a safe distance from them. However, to care for the bears I have to consider the safety of the not so smart people.
Since that sighting we have seen the same family several times. Most of those occasions we found ourselves in a position to have to help keep traffic moving and could not get any good photos. It is poor form for official looking people to pull out a 400 MM lensed camera and snap a few photos while encouraging others to keep moving. I did finally get some pictures, but they are at a distance and not of the best quality. I have shared the best ones.
We have also had a grizzly bear working the meadows a few miles south of the campground. On several occasions visitors have reported to us that many people were out of vehicles and running into the meadow to get better looks at the bear. Being 10 to 12 miles from where the rangers are headquartered means that many minutes could pass before help would get to the scene. (After calling in the situation via radio we listen to hear where the responding ranger will be coming from.) One fateful evening the nearest ranger was miles away, so I went to the scene in our personal car and was met with a real mess. First, the bear was at least a quarter mile off the road and not at all interested in what was going on at the roadside turnout. Second, a father and young son were running down a trail towards the creek that separated the bear from the people. The creek is lined on both sides with eight to ten foot tall willows making it impossible to see where you are going much less what you are about to run into. I caught up to the man and advised him that he was making a big mistake in trying to make it to the creek to get a better view as he could easily find another bear in the willows. I pointed out that the trail he and his son were on wasn’t made by humans. That seemed to get his attention and the two of them retreated with an apology and a thank you.
After ascertaining that those were the only two people who had ventured into the willows I turned my attention to the traffic jam. The bear was sighted from a rather large pull out. If utilized properly vehicles could be angle parked on both sides of the pullout therefore accommodating twenty or thirty cars. Well, that wasn’t how they were parked when I got there. The middle of the pullout was choked by an RV that had not pulled completely into the space. So, everyone who came in behind him just stopped completely jamming the entrance. That meant some were parked along the roadway. Since there was no shoulder that meant the roadway was partially blocked, impeding traffic flow in either direction. Of course, the fact that flow was impeded mattered little as most people wanted to stop to see what everyone else was looking at.
I set to finding the drivers of the various blocking vehicles and getting them to move enough to allow proper use of the parking area. Then I found the drivers of the roadway parkers and got them to move into the parking area. From there it was a rather simple matter of keeping order in the parking area as vehicles left and others came in. I was there for nearly two hours before a ranger arrived. The two of us shared the duty for another twenty to thirty minutes before we decided I could leave.
There have been at least two other times since then when Connie and I have found ourselves to be the first ones on a scene where bears have caused a major traffic jam. We worked the situations until completion, i.e. the bears went out of sight so the people left. We were joined in our efforts by paid staff in the form of rangers and bear management personnel. It has been a busy time, but we feel very strongly that the bears deserve the protection. By that I mean if we don’t stop and take action to both call in the situation and then assist in keeping traffic moving there could come a time when someone gets too close and is attacked. That would be bad for the person involved, but it would also cause the bear to be removed from the eco-system. So, we do our best to protect all species, human and bear alike.
There has also been a lot more elk activity in the vicinity of the campground this year. For the most part they don’t cause as much of a problem. Most people slowly drive by snapping a few quick photos as they go. Very few find it necessary to stop in the middle of the road and get out of their vehicles.
We have had a huge bull bison visit the campground on a couple of occasions. As you will see in the photos he was so close to the motorhome one day that we could not leave without violating the 25 yard rule.
Not all of our wildlife sightings have been large animals. I have included photos of the not so big as well. I am getting a lot of use out of my new lens. I am also learning more and more about the capabilities of my camera and have done a good bit of experimentation to get more lifelike images. I hope you enjoy the offerings at the end of the post.
I wrote the majority of this post some days ago. In the time between then and now I was called to help manage another grizzly bear jam a few miles south of our campground. I spent three and a half hours working with the District Head Ranger that afternoon. It was a good experience working with the big boss and unfortunately a very necessary task. I suspect we interacted with at least a thousand vehicles while the bear did his or her thing. When I first arrived the bear was grazing about 100 yards off the road. Eventually, it got to be nap time and the bear settled down in tall grass amongst some trees. That could have been the end of the “jam” except that many visitors had watched the bear lie down and knew its exact location. So, they just sort of camped out like the paparazzi outside the London Hospital awaiting the new Duke of Cambridge’s arrival. With such a large throng of people along the roadway, passing motorists wanted to know what was going on. Drivers would stop in the travel lane and the vehicles would empty onto the road leaving the driver to hopefully creep along so he/she could retrieve the family. My job was to keep the traffic moving. That of course means I was to encourage the creepers to move along. Many asked what they should do about their family members who were somewhere alongside the road. I replied by suggesting they should have given that some thought before letting them out. Many of the people who were running up the road had no idea what they were running to. That is a pretty dangerous thing to do in bear country.
Anyway, we were unable to clear the jammed traffic before the bear awoke from its nap. Once up and moving it got much closer to the road. It was so close in fact that I had to strongly encourage people to return to their vehicles as we were all well within the danger zone. I had my bear spray at the ready, but fortunately never had to use it. During the course of this encounter, I walked several miles, mostly back and forth and I got some really great close-up looks at this wonderful creature. Notice I said looks. Once again, no photos! I was close enough for a head shot with my point and shoot, but with radio in one hand and the other resting on my bear spray can while walking backwards waving the traffic on and barking instructions to people out of vehicles made reaching for the camera impossible.
I did hear some interesting comments along the way. One woman asked me why the park service allowed such things to occur. I am not sure what she expects the park to do. After all, we were doing all we could to keep traffic moving. To try to cite people for what they were doing would take an army of rangers and, oh by the way, where would they pull them over to write the tickets which probably would be thrown out of court anyway because from the second car back what was the law that was broken? Many people asked what the jam was about since for most of the time we couldn’t see the bear. Others were in a hurry to get through and thanked us for trying to keep things moving.
One of my new pet peeves regarding visitor behavior is the need to walk or run on the roadway rather than outside the shoulder stripe. Most of the roads in our part of the park have no paved shoulders. However, most areas have descent enough unpaved margins off the pavement where it is safe to walk. It is absolutely unsafe to walk on the pavement, especially when walking in the same direction as the traffic. Most drivers are distracted by whatever it is that is slowing traffic and that doesn’t include the walkers. Many drift one direction or the other making for hazards on either side of the moving vehicle. If you walk with the traffic you won’t see the mirror that is about to knock you down and the driver is not likely to see the walker since the point of interest is further down the road. I have found that for the most part neither the drivers nor the walkers recognize the dangers that exist in these situations. As it turns out there seems to be data to support the notion that more people are injured by vehicles at animal jams than by the animals. I have therefore become quite vocal in trying to keep the walkers alert to their personal situation. Not an easy task!
Lest I sound too much like a wildlife management volunteer instead of a campground volunteer let me finish this post by saying that things have gone extremely well within the campground so far this summer. We have been very busy, but for the most part our campers have been very good and have provided much more joy than frustration. We are once again truly enjoying the opportunity to provide a service to our visitors and help them enjoy their stay in this wonderful place. As always we encourage anyone and everyone to come visit and experience for oneself the wildness and beauty that Yellowstone offers.