In the past few years, America’s national parks have been experiencing a major visitor boom. 2018 was the fourth consecutive year the parks topped 300 million visitors, and, according to the NPS, 2019 visits are expected to exceed 300 million again. With year after year of astronomical attendance, managing interactions between excited tourists and potentially dangerous wildlife is a constant challenge.
Of the more than 300 million visitors to the parks, only a small percentage actually do any backcountry hiking or camping where extensive wildlife training would be necessary, so many times, wildlife safety can be an afterthought. Most of us just take advantage of the miles of paved roads, easy-access trails, visitor centers, scenic overlooks, and wildlife viewing pullouts—and it’s typically a fun and safe experience. But the risks for potentially harmful encounters with wildlife don’t simply go away because you’re in a “populated” part of a national park.
The animals in these well-traveled areas are often more accustomed to humans being around, but that hardly means it’s safe to approach them.
Wildlife can be unpredictable
Drew Walker, a Trafalgar tour director, remembers an encounter one of his guests had in a national park, with an animal often considered harmless. “My guest was from Australia and had never seen a squirrel, so he caught one and picked it up. Of course, the squirrel bit him.” Yes—even a squirrel can ruin your vacation.
Depending on the park you visit, bison can stampede through a parking lot, bull elk can charge anyone getting too close, or a mother bear could become quite protective of her cubs. Wildlife is unpredictable, and it’s easy to forget when they seem docile.
Yes—even a squirrel can ruin your vacation.
Thankfully, America’s national parks are doing more than ever to ensure visitors have safe, enjoyable trips to the parks. One of the best examples is Grand Teton National Park and their “Wildlife Brigade”—a group of volunteers willing to put themselves between throngs of overly excited tourists and 400-pound mama grizzly bears.
Grand Teton, like many other parks, has seen an attendance increase of nearly 40 percent over the past decade. And while more people have been enjoying the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), the grizzly bear population has steadily increased as well. The NPS estimates the grizzly population in the GYE has grown from 136 in 1975 to over 700 today.
More people coupled with more grizzlies sounded like a recipe for disaster to park officials, so in 2007 the Wildlife Brigade was formed to help minimize negative human-animal interactions. With support from the Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) Foundation, members of the brigade receive extensive training as part of an effort to ensure both humans and wildlife are kept safe while inside the park.
A dream opportunity
According to the GTNP Foundation, “Grand Teton’s Wildlife Brigade members are part ambassadors, part compliance officers. This valuable group of volunteers manages roadside ‘wildlife jams,’ patrols picnic areas for unsecured food, and shares educational information with visitors.”
For any lover of the Tetons and wildlife, it’s the volunteer opportunity of a lifetime. So what’s it like to be one of these Wildlife Brigade volunteers?
While the brigade works to ensure safe human interactions with all the animals in the park, the grizzlies are what gets the most notoriety. “The most exciting thing is working with the grizzlies and trying to give our guests the opportunity to get some beautiful camera shots,” Larry Muir, a Wildlife Brigade member says in a video produced by the GTNP Foundation.
The volunteers want visitors to enjoy the wildlife and get those postcard-perfect photos—and with safety as the primary concern, their efforts appear to be working. Despite record-breaking attendance, adverse bear-human interactions in Grand Teton National Park remain rare.
“Maybe the animal wants to cross the road and here’s a line of people. The biggest challenge is to nicely move them back and make sure we gain cooperation without disappointing or making people upset,” says volunteer Laurie Wofford in the video.
So the next time you’re admiring the wildlife in Grand Teton National Park, look for the Wildlife Brigade volunteer standing nearby to make sure you don’t ruin someone’s day—human or grizzly bear.
If trying to keep nosy tourists at a safe distance from wild animals sounds like a dream come true for you, visit the GTNP Foundation website to learn more about this unique volunteer opportunity.
Staying safe in a national park
Of course, the Wildlife Brigade can’t be everywhere all the time. Any visitor to a national park should have a decent understanding of how to interact with wildlife safely. The National Park Service has a plethora of information regarding safety, but here are three ways to make your next national park trip a safe one.
1.Understand the park you’re visiting
Every park has a different make-up of animals. Do a little research so you won’t be caught off-guard by an animal encounter you didn’t even realize was possible.
2. Don’t be afraid to say something
If someone is taunting wildlife, trying to touch animals, or doing anything aggressive around them, it puts both the animals and all the humans in the vicinity in danger. Politely ask the person to stop. If they continue, however, try to find a ranger or write down their vehicle’s license plate and turn it into a ranger at the next opportunity. If someone is messing with animals at one stop, they’ll probably do it again at the next stop.
3. Give animals space
This has to be the most important (and most commonly broken) rule to safely enjoying national parks. Some parks will have specific guidelines based on mating seasons and types of wildlife in their ecosystem, but overall, you should give any animal at least 25 yards of space. For the big predators, such as bears, a football field (100 yards) or more is suggested.
If you’re camping in and around the national parks, you’ll want to brush up on food and trash handling as well.
At the end of the day, successfully visiting a national park—or any public land—comes down to being considerate. That includes things like practicing Leave No Trace principles, as well as showing respect to wildlife. Remember: We’re in their space, not the other way around.
Between park efforts like the Wildlife Brigade and the rest of us just learning a little more about park safety, there’s no reason the 300 million people visiting a national park this year can’t do so without incident.