True or False: Park Rangers Always Know Where Every Animal Is In The Park.
True or False: All of the animals in the park “are chipped.”
True or False: Wildlife Management does not always mean just the four-legged kind.
According to many visitors that we meet on the side of the road, Wildlife Brigade members are magicians — appearing miraculously every time a bear, moose, or elk pops out of the brush.
We are told with great conviction, that the reason we are able to arrive so quickly to the scene of an animal-caused traffic jam, is that we’ve chipped all the animals the way veterinarians tag pets, and have apps on our phones that tell us where every animal is. Oh, what power! What a dream!!
The animals in the park are not chipped. Microchips just store an owner’s information. To get a location requires a battery powered GPS device. Even if it ‘only’ cost $50 to chip each of +/- 15,000 animals, (not counting staff, helicopters, traps, etc.) that is three quarters of a million dollars. You have to pass a scanner over the skin of said animal to read it, and I would prefer not to get that close to any of the animals in the park. 🙂 Oh, and have you tried using a cell phone in a wilderness?
So it must be that they all have radio collars, right!?! No.
GPS radio collars that could provide location information ($1500 each), are only good for a year or so and would cost five to ten times the annual park’s budget to install!
Ignoring the impracticality of accomplishing such a feat year after year, national parks by and large have a live and let live policy when it comes to wildlife. The parks let them live as naturally as possible. The capturing and collaring process puts great stress on an animal. Not all species react well to anesthesia, so there needs to be a more compelling benefit for stressing an animal than just knowing where it is in the park.
However, there are studies conducted in the park that involve trapping and collaring animals. Most often the research is aimed at understanding and assessing the health and population size of a specific species. For example, grizzly bears are protected as a threatened species. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST) “is an interdisciplinary group of scientists and biologists responsible for long-term monitoring and research efforts on grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)”, of which Grand Teton is a part.
They will be conducting their annual study on a few bears in the park this spring. It is a random selection process — whatever bear that happens to wander into a trap is the bear that is collared!
In my understanding, the GPS collars that the bears receive will make note of the GPS location every few hours or so and eventually (perhaps once a week) send a record of the locations via satellite for the agency to create a map of the range of the bears over time. It is not real-time tracking.
Outsider has a short article on bear research in the park at: https://outsider.com/lifestyle/parks/grizzly-bear-trapping-begin-grand-teton-national-parks/
The Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center has an interesting set of photos showing grizzly bear capture procedures at: https://www.usgs.gov/media/galleries/grizzly-bear-capture-procedures
Certainly other agencies conduct research on various species in the park, so you may see an elk or even a fox with a GPS collar when you visit.
That said, not all bears with a collar are strictly a member of the random research project. Some have earned their collar.
The biggest danger to bears aside from being hit by a speeding vehicle is from human created attractants such as human food, trash, bird feeders, livestock feed, or urban fruit trees. Bears are amazingly adaptable, modifying their behavior to take advantage of the resources in their environment. If they experience a positive outcome such as a food reward near people, then they will look to repeat that experience — making them bolder with each reward — and thus a danger to people.
If the park has a bear that begins being a nuisance by consistently looking for food in developed areas (campgrounds, hotels, picnic areas), there are a few management options. One being to trap and relocate the bear if possible. At that time, a collar is put on the bear prior to its release. The purpose is to verify the bear stayed in its new area. The collars are programmed to fall off after a certain amount of time. As one ranger told me, we don’t need to know their whole life after they move on, we just need to know that they made a good start in the new place and did not come back.
All too often, the bear will travel many miles, walking right past perfect bear food, to return to the place they got in trouble, all in an effort to get their food reward again. Too smart for their own good, that is often the end for the bear.
Last fall the five member family of famous grizzly 399 spent a lot of time south of the park, in town, and on private land, unfortunately getting food rewards such as honey, livestock feed, and trash. The county did not have the manpower to keep an eye on them in developed areas 24/7, so the decision was made to trap part of the family and put collars on them. Two male cubs volunteered themselves for the duty and were collared.
Their collars are programmed to drop off in a few months, and access to the location data is very restricted.
So, okay, if all this data is for research but not up-to-the-minute tracking, how does Wildlife Brigade end up at the jams so quickly?
Our day starts when Dave and I hop in our brigade car and patrol the park. Sometimes we choose where to start based on what time of year it is. In early spring our search begins in the north end of the park. Grizzly bears leave the den earlier than black bears, males before females and cubs. Grizzlies are generally more prevalent in the habitat at the northern end of the park, so it makes sense to concentrate our efforts there.
Sometimes we choose where to start looking based on reports from the evening shift. We may start our patrol near the last known sighting of bears.
As the weather warms and certain plants that are bear favorites begin to bloom or ripen we will be sure to drive by fields of blooming biscuit root or dandelion. In the fall there is a corridor in the southern part of the park lined with four types of berries that ripen in succession and keep the grizzly and black bears satisfying their sweet tooth for several consecutive weeks. A good place to patrol in September and October.
We may also pay attention to other environmental factors — are there crows or vultures gathering in a few trees? Is there a bad smell in the air? Has there been a report of an animal hit by a car? If there is an animal carcass, then there is a good chance a bear will be in the area soon. (A carcass near the road is moved away so that predators can feed on it without endangering people.)
This week we drove past a car parked on the side of the road and a single person with a spotting scope. I looked in the direction the scope was pointed and saw a grizzly bear 300 yards out. We swung our car around and in five minutes had a 30 car jam. Nice viewing opportunity for many!
Sometimes a visitor will call the park front office or dispatch to let them know a bear has been sighted, and we will get a call to respond over park radio. Other times, we just happen upon a bunch of cars pulled over and we get to work — assessing what animal people are watching, are they a safe distance from the animal, and is traffic moving safely?
Animal traffic jams are very dynamic events. Often, both animals, people, and cars are all in motion. Vehicle drivers are trying to see what the crowd sees and forget to watch the road or where their RV side-mirrors are. Excited visitors cross the road with their cell phones in front of their face and forget to watch for cars. Animals may be simply trying to cross the road to get more food, but in their anxiousness to see the wildlife, visitors inadvertently build a wall of cars and people that prevent the free movement of the animals.
Some of the things we may do at a jam could include moving cars to open a space in the wall with hopes of encouraging the animal to cross in the ‘safe’ zone. We want to make sure people are parked completely off the road, not parked on a blind curve, or parked near heavy brush or tree cover where an animal could pop out on top of them with no time to react.
A sure way to know there are no animals around when you drive by is to see expensive camera equipment unattended.Kathy Titley
We are more than just compliance officers. We are also ambassadors for the park and are happy to answer the wide variety of questions that visitors ask us. A small sampling from this week:
- What animal is that?
- How long do they live?
- What are they eating?
- When do they mate?
- When are their cub/pups/calves born?
- Do I need bear spray?
- What is the best hike?
- Where can I get coffee?
- Does my paddleboard need a sticker?
- Where can I see eagles/bears/moose/elk/otters/wolves/foxes/coyotes/sheep … ?
- Where can I go swimming?
- Where is a good picnic spot?
- Why is the lake low?
- Where can I rent a kayak?
- Are those glaciers up there?
- Where is the fault line?
- Can my dog go on the hike with me?
My favorite from last week at a bear jam: Is the south gate to Yellowstone open? [I don’t know] You have a radio, why don’t you know?
The majority of the Wildlife Brigade members are volunteers in the park. Whether ranger or volunteer, at the heart of the many reasons why we devote our time and energy to this job is our love of the wildlife and sharing that love with visitors. Our appearance at jams is a combination of common sense, situational awareness, persistence — sometimes with a little luck thrown in. We have also learned that if you want to bet on which direction a bear is going to go or exactly when or where they will cross the road, you had best save your money!
Over the years, colleagues have offered their description of the life of a brigade member:
Grand Teton National Park Foundation post by fellow brigaders Chris and Jeff: https://www.gtnpf.org/a-day-in-the-life-of-the-wildlife-brigade/
Two minute NBC Nightly News interview of colleagues Cheryl and Tim: https://www.facebook.com/nbcnightlynews/videos/these-national-park-volunteers-are-leaving-their-suburban-lives-to-retire-in-the/299006257630322/