Yellowstone roadside grizzlies worth rangers’ hassle
by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
— July 8, 2014
Yellowstone visitors would pay an additional $41 to ensure seeing roadside grizzlies, a study shows, and the attraction creates 155 jobs and more than $10 million a year for the regional economy.
The $41 visitors would pay is on top of the $25-per-vehicle entrance fee. If Yellowstone no longer allowed grizzly bears to use roadside habitat — and instead chased, moved or killed them — the regional economy would lose more than $10 million a year and 155 jobs according to the paper “The economics of roadside bear viewing.”
Allowing 500-pound bears to frolic by roads, back up traffic and entertain thousands of visitors comes with a cost, however. Park rangers and other employees spent more than 2,542 man-hours managing 1,031 bear jams in the world’s first national park in 2011, the study says. That amounts to more — probably much more — than $50,000 a year according to calculations made by WyoFile and based on other park figures and information.
“We’re spending a lot of time, staff time and overtime,” said Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone’s bear management biologist and a co-author of the report. “Managers are wondering … should we do something different?”
The study shows that while changes to roadside bear management might appear to save Yellowstone money, they would have broader consequences amounting to perhaps 4 percent of the regional economy.
Gunther, Leslie Richardson, Tatjana Rosen, and Chuck Schwartz published the study in The Journal of Environmental Management early this year. It appears at a time of limited park budgets but increasing visitation.
“We definitely have to tighten our belts,” Gunther said. “Budgets aren’t really keeping pace with visitation. Managers are asking tough questions.”
Among those are whether the park should continue to pay rangers to be “basically baby-sitting people at bear jams,” Gunther said.
That people would pay $41 extra to see grizzly bears by the roadside was unexpected.
“That kind of surprised us because people usually don’t want to pay higher entrance fees for anything,” Gunther said. The study might have produced an even higher value had it offered the 663 respondents a hypothetical chance to pay more than $50 to ensure roadside bears, authors said.
In any case, “It helps emphasize how important bears are to our visitors,” Gunther said.
Yellowstone isn’t going to use the survey to start charging a $66 entrance fee anytime soon, park spokesman Al Nash said. Yet, “our management group certainly has had discussions.”
“We continue to try and look at whatever the appropriate balance is when it comes to any kind of fees,” he said. “We’re very conscious that changes, if they occur, need to be respectful of our visitor population and need to be incremental.”
Park entrance fees are relatively insignificant compared to other costs associated with a Yellowstone visit, Nash said. The $25-per-car entrance fee is good for seven days and includes entrance to Grand Teton National Park.
“You spend more on gas to get from Jackson to the South Entrance than we’re going to get,” he said.
Parks may pay attention to revenue these days now that they’re allowed to keep a portion of some money collected and other funds are scarcer.
“The percentage we keep has become more important to us even though there are significant restrictions on how that may be used,” Nash said. “Ultimately, anything we do will have to be approved in Washington.”
Bear jams occur in nearby Grand Teton National Park where bear 399 became a national celebrity while raising cubs near highways. A team of bear-jam volunteers led by a full-time employee patrols the roadside hotspots to prevent conflicts. The Wildlife Brigade program isn’t free to the Park Service, however.
“It does come with a cost,” spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. “There’s a lot of support, training, uniforms, vehicles. “Most [volunteers] are retired who need some kind of housing, trailer spots.”
Yellowstone roadside bear history stretches back the early 1900s when, former park researcher Paul Schullery wrote, a black bear cub earned the nickname Jesse James after persistently begging for food near the West Entrance. Soon enough Yogi and BooBoo, and even Mr. Park Ranger, became part of the American wilderness vernacular.
When mentioning Yellowstone “everybody thought ‘bears,’ first,” spokesman Nash said about the park’s place in the American psyche. In spite of world-famous Old Faithful, “wildlife viewing is really the most popular activity,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who thought there was ‘a’ geyser.”
Officials stopped all artificial feeding in the 1970s and the grizzly population dipped. With programs enacted through the Endangered Species Act starting in 1975, grizzlies became more numerous and visible. As the backcountry filled up with grizzlies, they began using roadside habitat they had previously avoided.
In the 1980s the park didn’t let grizzlies hang out along Yellowstone’s 300 miles of roads where people could readily see them. Managers worried bears would be fed, come to associate people with food, and therefore become unnaturally dangerous. Or they might get hit by cars.
“We initially tried trapping and moving those bears,” Gunther said. “That’s more of a Band-aid approach.”
Bears would return, faithful to their home turf. Or they would be chased out of a foreign neighborhood.
“A lot of people like to think there’s this big happy valley where we can move bears,” Gunther said. But no; “The park’s full.”
Hazing — including shooting rubber bullets — didn’t work, either. Olaus Murie had learned that as early as 1944, Gunther said in a 2008 article in Yellowstone Science.
“Experience has shown that the bear learns to recognize the particular person or car that administers the shock or other punishment, and he simply avoids that person or car in the future, but does not fear other persons or cars,” Gunther quoted from a Murie park file.
Plus, bears’ natural food occurs alongside highways. Those include ungulate carcasses, elk calves, whitebark pine seeds, clover, biscuit root, pocket gophers, yampa roots and rose hips, Gunther wrote. “It would take more than rubber bullets and cracker shells to change centuries of bear evolution.”
Managers sought another tactic, Gunther said. “Let’s manage people.
“It started small — a few dozen bear jams a year,” Gunther said. “It worked very well. The public loved it. Today, we easily have 1,000 bear jams a year.”
Bears, too, became used to the scene. They became habituated to people and cars, but not conditioned to associate traffic jams with an opportunity to run off with a picnic basket.
“Habituation of bears to humans in YNP allows them to access and utilize high quality habitat in areas with high levels of human activity without incurring the energetic costs of fleeing every time a park visitor appears,” Gunther wrote in Yellowstone Science.
One option Yellowstone and Grand Teton have would be to let the bear-jam scene play out without ranger supervision. “We don’t know what would happen if we just said ‘let it be,’” Gunther said.
Given human nature and past experience, the probability that somebody would break no-feeding rules or get too close is high.
“Eventually the bear gets in trouble and gets removed,” Gunther said. “Also, if somebody gets hurt, that can be a setback not only to the individual bear but to the bear population as a whole. It just builds fear of bears in people.”
Managers are wary of an Arizona lawsuit against wildlife officials that was settled for $2.5 million after a girl was mauled by a black bear known to have been a problem.
“So we also have to look out for the taxpayers’ money from a lawsuit point of view,” Gunther said.
Allowing visitors to see bears up close in the natural world stirs awe and inspires an appreciation for conservation of the species, biologists say.
Not all bear jams can be staffed today. “There are currently more ‘bear jams’ on Park roads than Park rangers to manage them, causing a strain on existing Park personnel as well as increased concern for visitor safety,” Gunther and his colleagues wrote.
Where rangers are present, things have gone well.
“We’ve never had a person hurt by a bear at a bear jam,” Gunther said. But, “we’ve had a few people injured by vehicles.”
After 31 years working with Yellowstone grizzlies, the luster of watching roadside bears has faded for Gunther.
“For me it’s a lot more special to be in the backcountry,” he said. Not everybody has the wherewithal to get to Gunther’s wilderness yet Yellowstone’s grizzlies remain valuable to them.
“For people who live in a big city, it’s probably the greatest thing in the world,” Gunther said.
— Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He began working at the Jackson Hole News in 1978, and was editor of the Jackson Hole News and Jackson Hole News&Guide before joining WyoFile. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (307) 690-5586. Follow him @AngusThuermer.
SUPPORT: If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.