Grand Teton National Park is one of the most beautiful parks on the planet. Its sibling to the north, Yellowstone, too often overshadows it.
Yet for those who take the time to explore Grand Teton, most will agree that it is every bit as spectacular and diverse as Yellowstone, if not better.
There’s a problem though. Grand Teton is at war with itself.
The park is small and has, depending on how you define it, one or two major roads that take you through the wilderness, along with a handful of secondary roads.
It also has an airport. Inside of the park. With jets. Seriously.
And the famous resort town of Jackson Hole is adjacent to its southern border.
All of this makes Grand Teton one of the most accessible wildernesses in the world, as well as one of the most challenging to manage.
There are far too many people visiting the park, yet park services around the world lust for more and more people to come through their gates, as entrance fees provide the dollars that pay the salaries and run the programs. It’s the metric with which most parks are judged as a success or failure. Grand Teton is no exception.
But here’s the rub: There aren’t enough rangers to manage said people. The problem with more people visiting is that it will never yield enough money to hire enough staff to properly facilitate the growth in visitors. Mo’ money, mo’ problems, in essence.
And this really is a system issue. The parks model is failing, but that isn’t going to be fixed at the Grand Teton management level. So how do you adapt? In Grand Teton, it’s to make enemies with the very people they are begging to come visit.
You see, Teton, for the last two decades, has become the embodiment of conservation biology in action. A grizzly sow wanders into a vast, unused and productive habitat; she sets up shop; meets a nice boar; has cubs. And then the cub has cubs. And so on. Before you know it, you have a self-sustaining grizzly bear population. This is what has played out with Grand Teton’s matriarch, 399, and her ex-cub, equally iconic 610. A success story for an endangered species.
The problem is people want to see the story in action. And document it. With a camera. And when the entire world congregates on one piece of road, you can imagine the issues that start to emerge.
This is where I sympathize with the park management. It’s a hell of a situation. You don’t want to be the person that allows for a situation that leads to the euthanizing of 399 on your watch (as was explained to me). I get it. I truly do.
In fact, I think most people empathize. But the answer isn’t to go so far to the other extreme as to make war with everyone and anyone who might want to see a bear or take its photo or be part of an exceptional story.
And that’s what has transpired.
Photographers are the enemy. Tourists are the enemy. New rules are imposed that restrict people from stopping to watch a bear. Oh, what the heck, any animals! Outside of your car: Makes sense. But you can’t watch when safely off the road from inside of a car? Nope.
If a bear is near the road these days, it gets crackered – doesn’t matter if it means forcing sows and cubs to be separated in the vicinity of a boar (something that we’ve witnessed and, in another situation, is believed to have contributed to the death of at least one cub). Common sense need not apply here.
Indeed, this is a park that seems to be managed by fear and emotion, rather than sound policy and reasoned debate.
This is not to say the park is the only one in the wrong. It’s not.
I’ve witnessed photographers cross the line. I know that in a park with mobile networks, bear jams can go from peaceful to bonkers in thirty seconds flat. I know rangers are rarely contacted, when some situations merit their help, for fear of a jam being closed down. I know there are unsafe roads that shouldn’t exist, but are fought to be kept open and stretch already drained resources and frayed nerves.
But this isn’t an excuse to run around acting like you’re a chicken with your head cut off. When one of the architects of the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) conservation initiative – who only cares about the best interest of the animals – can observe that Grand Teton has lost touch with reality, you know you have a problem. To borrow from former President Johnson, potential allies are no longer outside the tent pissing in, they’re literally inside the tent pissing in.
The situation is untenable and with both sides so entrenched in their positions, facts are twisted, context is neglected, and everyone will likely lose.
So what to do?
You’d hope that the individuals tasked with being leaders would be the first to admit there is a problem and be adult enough to get off their reactionary horse and extend an olive branch.
And what could that olive branch look like?
Firstly, as I’ve argued before, it begins with embracing reality.
Unless Grand Teton shuts down the airport, pulls up the trails, takes down the dam, removes boat access and stops building resorts, it can’t pretend it’s a roadless wilderness where animal jams won’t exist. For starters, it’s hypocritical to argue both sides of the same coin – gladly accepting the revenue of development while disparaging the consequences.
Secondly, Grand Teton needs to understand the opportunity.
An accessible park embodying conservation biology is an unmatched chance to build understanding and support for progressive wildlife policies in other parts of America – and the world – where it is desperately lacking.
Thirdly, without making peace with the ‘enemy’ you’ll never be able to get ahead.
Why not create a system that attracts better rangers who embrace education and patience? Why not reward good photographers and animals watchers and give them the tools to help manage out of control bear jams? Or why not suggest every local photographer must put the camera down one day for every five days in the field and act as a volunteer ranger? That would solve the resource issue quickly.
And finally, while we’re on the subject of both sides taking a deep breath, maybe every stakeholder can be invited to the table, hear the problem first hand, and participate in coming up with a management plan that works.
Maybe in hearing all of the facts, it can be agreed that only half of the secondary roads in Teton can be managed properly, so some particularly challenging areas (here’s looking at you, Moose-Wilson Rd) can be shuttered in exchange for keeping others open 365 days a year (like Pilgrim Creek Rd), even if there is a bear frequenting it.
Maybe people pay extra to watch bears and the park is able to raise more funds to cover management costs (a recent study shows this to be an extremely viable option).
Or maybe my ideas don’t work. But ideas like these lead to balance and, ultimately, joint-ownership of a solution, allowing for it to be a peace that endures. And that has to be the goal, as what is currently transpiring doesn’t cut it.
Photography and wildlife watching aren’t cancerous, as one Grand Teton ranger told me, after yelling at me for taking this image of a bear (from inside of a safely parked car) that was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people with the goal of advancing the Y2Y initiative.
Is it unfair 399 has to put up with people? Yes; however, she also enjoys the protection from boars that roads provide.
While in a perfect world there wouldn’t be any roads in Teton, we don’t live in utopia. Plus, there is a massive, untapped opportunity – locally and globally – for the park’s economy and for conservation.
But until a workable solution is in place, I won’t be returning to Grand Teton. I’d rather spend my time – and money – where the experience is positive and my skills, as an ally, are welcomed.
Parks Canada has never looked so good.
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