Earlier this fall, I was fortunate to have joined a group of 12 clients on a wildlife watching safari in Yellowstone National Park. We lucked out with weather and with wildlife sightings, and it was wonderful to focus on one national park and ecosystem over six days as well!
What I love most about guiding is helping people connect the dots, and come away with a deeper understanding of the importance of protecting all the parts of a particular ecosystem. For all the places I guide people, I know the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the best, though there is always far more to learn, know and understand as this and other dynamic wild regions change over time.
Our converations centered around how wildlife is perceived and treated within and outside of national park boundaries, and how things that happen in one location within an ecosytem have a profound impact everywhere within it.
A quick example here: Whitebark pine trees in Greater Yellowstone inhabit a narrow zone of life at higher altitudes. With climate change, whitebark pine trees are way more vulnerable to blister rust, pine beetle infestations and other problems.These trees cannot easily and quickly adapt by moving to higher elevations as the climate continues to rapidly warm.
Whitebark pines produce high fat content seeds and nuts about every four to five years. When there’s a robust year, grizzlies gorge on them from late summer into fall often raiding stash piles cached by pine squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers. Grizzlies tend to roam less within Greater Yellowstone when the nuts and seeds are unusually abundant; in lean years they wander into more human occupied and developed areas in search of alternative food sources.
And this is when grizzlies get into trouble. Unsecured pet and livestock food entice them to visit people’s property throughout the ecosystem, as do apple orchards, gardens, compost piles and garbage. Hunters who do not immediately gut and remove their kills outside park boundaries often contribute to grizzly vs. human encounters, triggering tragic outcomes for both parties.
In short, a fed bear is a dead bear when it comes into contact with people. The challenge is two-fold: making it hard for bruins to get human food rewards, and preserving wild areas outside of national parks for bears and other wide-ranging animals to make a living over the course of their lifetimes.
On the last full day together, our wildlife watching group traveled a rugged rural road outside the park, hoping to glimpse an elusive moose, and perhaps one more grizzly. We first saw a massive bull moose several hundred yards away before he ventured into a dense thicket of willows. Afterwards we drove to where we could more easily and safely turn around, and to our surprise saw a grizzly bear ripping open a rotting log not far from where the moose had been standing!
The bruin definitely sensed that we were there watching, but continued to feed upon whatever inhabited the rotting log. Unlike earlier wildlife sightings together, this wasn’t an “animal jam” where hundreds of people crowded in to see a grizzly or black bear-it was just our small group seeing how powerful, vigilant and intent the bear was to put on more weight before winter fully set in.
Witnessing this grizzly roaming freely, living its life outside Yellowstone, drove home the importance of preserving places outside the park for the sake of grizzly bears and all wildlife species, and for future human generations to experience and enjoy, too. We better understood that wildlife cannot exist on isloated islands surrounded by humanity and all of our activities.
That grizzly’s presence was an enduring gift; it helped us forge a profound and more meaningful connection with the natural world from where we all came. The following morning, everyone departed for flights home from Bozeman, inspired and energized to do what they can to strengthen that bond and connection.