Wildlife Brigade — Our Volunteer Job, or What We Did This Summer
The adage that Time Flies While You Are Having Fun rings true for us this season. We have had wonderful experiences spread across Grand Teton National Park since May. It is hard not to gaze out at the scenery rolling past the patrol car window and not think of a story, an animal, or visitor interaction that is associated with ‘that spot’: The gas station where you tracked a grizzly that visitors never noticed; a stretch of pasture fence line where you helped reunite a bison calf and mother; the bend in the road where the first rays of the dawn lit up a small herd of elk nibbling the purple blooms of lupine; or the shaded picnic table where you shared a great pizza with friends and colleagues after a long shift. Pretty good for a 485 square mile park and its 45 mile long Park Loop Road!
Our tasks as members of the Wildlife Brigade are amazingly broad in scope. Over the next blog or two I’ll share the types of things that keep us busy. Dave and I work 32 hours a week as volunteers for the brigade in return for an RV spot in the employee loop of a campground in the park. Those 32 hours may be fun, but they are definitely a job. We feel it at the end of a week! 🙂
Grand Teton created the Wildlife Brigade in 2007 to assist in managing wildlife viewing jams, patrol campgrounds and developed areas for unsecured food and other bear attractants, and share educational information with park visitors. It is currently made up of a full time bear biologist ranger, two seasonal wildlife management rangers, and volunteers from a variety of job backgrounds (including a medical doctor, financial manager, defense contractor, real estate agent, retail clerk, veterinarian, retired park ranger, naval officer, and graphic artist).
Here are some example tasks the brigade performs:
Patrol: be on the look out for animal jams
Animal Jam: ensure public and animal safety along the roadside
FSVs: identifying Food Storage Violations
Education: engaging with visitors on topics ranging from plant and animal biology, safety in bear country, compliance issues, and more
Training: attend bi-weekly training sessions covering topics such as park standard operating procedures, roadway familiarization and local names for park locations, working with Law Enforcement, radio etiquette, and proper use of bear spray
Roadside Animal Fatality carcass removal
Back Country Days – every two weeks is a chance to meet the public in a different way than the rest of the work week – usually means hiking in uniform
Park Reporter – document observed resource damage, missing signs, trees down, offer ideas for solutions to problems
Let’s start with patrols.
We ride share a government hybrid vehicle with colleagues living in our employee camp loop. It is well equipped with binoculars, work gloves, report forms, education pamphlets, safety gear, and most used of all, a light bar (yellow flashing lights!) and traffic cones. A visitor once asked how the white cars always look so clean — easy! We wash and vacuum it before we turn it over to our colleagues. More often if needs it after a run down a muddy spring road. We have to look our best!
For most of the season, Dave and I leave camp between 5:15 and 5:30am so we are on the inner park road by the official start of our shift at 6am. My pals know I am not a morning person, but this park is doing its best to change my mind about that! Dawn often treats us to spectacular light shows as the sun spills over the Gros Ventre mountains on the east boundary, slides across the flat valley, and skips across the mountain peaks with pink and gold shoes.
Since many of the park animals prefer to be active at dawn and dusk, we’ve delighted in seeing pronghorn, elk, moose, coyotes, and occasionally a bear before many folks have contemplated their first cup of coffee.
In a previous blog, I describe the ways brigade members find out about wildlife jams: https://underwayshiftcolors.com/2022/05/16/true-or-false-park-rangers-always-know-where-every-animal-is-in-the-park/.
A routine patrol can include:
- visiting a trail head to make sure the food storage bear boxes are not full of trash (if they are, we clean it up)
- an early morning visit to a campground to see if a bear is making its own patrol
- a slow cruise through park housing to see if a bear is munching berries in someone’s yard (handy to have a stealth electric car!)
- walking the waterfront of String Lake to pick up any obvious bear attractants and trash left by late night visitors (we often fill a small trash bag – one morning we found: egg shells, avocado skin and pit, used bandaids, straw wrappers, ice cream wrappers, a life jacket product tag, grocery produce bag, green beans, a half pickle, food blob covered in ants, nylon belt, 2 full drink bottles, 3 different shoes, toddlers pooped in clothes, socks, and sunglasses — oh, and a cremation tag)
- driving by Signal Mountain to see if the bull elk that likes to get his picture taken and then charge people is out and looking for attention
- driving through campgrounds looking for food storage violations such as coolers, cooking gear, grills, and other attractants left out unsecured in an empty camp. (In addition to locking up the food & gear and leaving a note citing the rules and where their belongings now are (in the bear box where they should have been) we’ve also put out four campfires.)
- asking visitors to obey the posted rules such as not taking their dog down a trail, parking completely off the road, or not parking in the No Parking zone
- running a wildlife jam which may or may not have actual wildlife present (yes, we do end up with rumor jams (Dave calls them non-bear bear jams))
- cruising past dense stands of vegetation to assess how likely bears will be eating there soon (such as huckleberry, serviceberry, hawthorn and chokecherry shrubs)
- stopping by the bear management office to drop off copies of the food violations and any bear reports, and getting restocked on supplies
- being followed on our rounds by visitors that think that if they track us we will lead them to animals (they hate it when we stop for lunch, or worse yet, are off shift and go home!)
- getting waved down so a visitor can ask a question about … anything really
Dave and I are assigned to liaison with volunteers that work at String Lake, and will stop by as shifts allow to see if they need anything from the WL brigade. One afternoon, on a routine stop before getting off shift, the on duty ranger told us she had a report of a black bear in the area.
String Lake is a beautiful shallow water lake (that gets warm!) that locals and visitors love to use for kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, picnicking, or just sitting on the lakefront to enjoy the day. That means, there is roughly a mile of waterfront lined with people and food. With the help of the Lakers we work together to keep people, food, and bears separated.
The bears of the park often use our trails to move between food sources for the same reason we like them — the walking is easier than through bush. With 3.5 million annual visitors to the park, a few bears have lost their natural disinclination to deal with people and will walk the trail near the lake, not because people are there, but despite the fact that we are there. Still, we don’t want to create a new reason for them to visit — namely food.
One particular week this summer, the waterfront at String Lake was visited by four black bears in three days. When that happens staff will have to go to each and every person on the waterfront, in front of the bear, and ask them to quickly pick up their food, sunscreen, backpacks, etc. and go to the parking lot — often for the whole mile! Meanwhile, other trained staff members will be working with the bear at a safe distance, using the radio to alert the team on its movements. Sometimes the bear will double back, or even go for a swim which creates new safety issues with the people in the water!
This afternoon we were lucky. We could hear it snapping branches before we saw it. The bear, a gorgeous brown colored bear with some blond markings on its back seemed to know where the human designated boundary was between the front country (developed area with picnic tables, bathrooms, parking, etc.) and the back country where we expect bears to be bears. Although it headed toward the developed shoreline several times, it always stopped short and turned back, eventually losing itself in the thick brush further up the trail where we left it to its own devices.
Dave is a fan of the saying, “The worst day at Grand Teton beats your best day at __previous job__ [the Pentagon]. I heartily agree!