There are inherent dangers when visiting our National Parks. Visitors should abide by the warnings posted and take basic safety precautions, but don’t always do so. This summer in Grand Teton National Park, “wildlife jams” associated with the presence of grizzly bears near park roadways required enhanced enforcement. (The allowable distance between visitors and wildlife is 100 yards from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from other animals, including nesting birds.) After a bear charged two different vehicles while people stood on their car roofs, park officials recognized the need to more strictly enforce regulations for wildlife viewing to protect animals and ensure visitor safety. A quick review of basic do’s and don’ts when visiting National Parks follows.
Whether hiking or camping, it is good to keep certain guidelines in mind when it comes to wildlife, to ensure that people and wildlife are not harmed. People who watch and photograph wildlife sometimes unintentionally do harm. Most animals react with alarm when approached, and depending on the situation an animal may remain, flee, or in some cases, attack. These reactions are very stressful for animals, and repeated instances may cause wildlife to avoid an area, even if the area provides the best habitat. Respecting these wild animals will help maintain high quality wildlife viewing experiences for others. Never feed the wildlife, it can become dangerous for them and for park visitors. A gray wolf in Yellowstone had to be euthanized recently when he became too habituated to human food. When camping, keep food and garbage in wildlife-resistant containers.
Observe animals from the distance they consider safe. Signs that you are too close include head raised high with ears pointed in your direction, skittishness, the animal moves away or lowers head with ears back, or displays aggression or nervous behavior. Approach slowly and quietly, avoiding any sudden movements. Use telephoto lenses to photograph wildlife at a distance, and use binoculars to get close-up views.
Be especially careful around females with young. Females are very protective of their young and getting too close can put you in a dangerous predicament. When hiking in bear country, always hike in groups, make plenty of noise and use caution where vision is obstructed. This lessens the chance of sudden encounters, which is the cause of most bear-caused human injuries. Do not hike after dark. If you encounter a bear, do not run. Bears can run over 30 miles an hour, and running may elicit an attack. If the bear is unaware of you, detour away from the bear. If the bear is aware of you and nearby but has not acted aggressively, slowly back away. If a bear makes physical contact, drop to the ground, face down, and clasp your hands behind your neck. Before moving, make sure the bear is no longer nearby. Carry bear pepper spray with you when visiting bear country. The grizzly population around Yellowstone has grown to 600, and bears continue to spread into Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Lastly, drive slowly and watch out for wildlife crossing park roads. This is their home; we’re just visiting. Let’s be courteous guests!