The truth about sharing the wildlife in national parks

399 and her three cubs of 2011
399 and her three cubs of 2011

How it all began – the sharing of wildlife and the national parks

My life, the one my heart yearned to know, began in the summer of 2011 in Grand Teton National Park.

I stood at the side of the road, Highway 89 near Cattlemans, caught up in a flush of excitement.  Thrills beyond my wildest imaginations, watching Grizzly 610 and her two beautiful cubs of the year.

The three bears grazed in the willows before me and my camera was trained on them, with my short lens attached, intent on capturing the beauty, the magnificence, of the three creatures.  Never did I imagine being so close to grizzly bears but there I was.  And, the more I saw those bears, the more I wanted to see them – there was no saturation of my appetite.

As I stood there that day a family approached and I directed their searching eyes to the bears.  The adults looked with wonder, unable to believe it themselves, that they were seeing grizzlies.  However, a young boy stood at my feet, jumping up and down and standing on tip toes, trying to get a glimpse, but it was no use, he was too short.  So light and happy was my heart that I abandoned my camera and scooped the young man up in my arms and held him high so that he could see the grizzly bears.  His excitement shivered through his body and his exclamations of delight were the best thank yous anyone could give.  At that very moment I was hooked and knew that my life in the national parks would be about sharing everything that crossed my path with others.  I have repeated this scene several times and been an instrument to people seeing their first bears or wolves, or other animals, and it is always gratifying.

Prior to that moment in GTNP, I had been attending a community college in Spokane, WA, in an attempt to hone my writing/journalism, photography and videography skills, prior to moving forward with a plan to travel to the national parks.  Throughout my time at the college all of my projects had centered around my passion for wildlife.  My photography skills were rough and my knowledge about wildlife was minimal but I yearned to know everything there was to know and so was willing to learn, no matter the cost.

We were nearing the end of the spring semester when my life changed drastically, due to a single newspaper article in the Spokesman Review.  There was a 15 year old grizzly bear in Grand Teton National Park that was hanging close to the road with her three cubs.  They called her 399 and said that her daughter, 610, also had two cubs and was being seen often.  The article said that photographers and wildlife watchers were delighted.  http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/outdoors/2011/jun/09/grizzly-399-parades-another-crop-cubs-tetons/

From the moment I read the newspaper article, the passion in my heart cried out and nothing else mattered but going to see the bears.  I could not finish classes fast enough – my mind was firmly planted on packing and traveling.  Could I camp after 7 back surgeries?   I could do anything if it meant photographing bear cubs in the wild.

I traveled to and camped in Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton that June, stretching into July.  A trip that was supposed to last a week or two stretched into a month, with three weeks spent with the grizzlies of the Tetons.  The longer I was there the less I knew about the whole scene – the parks, the bears, the landscape and the people.  But, never before had I had so much fun – living in a tent on a gorgeous lakeside site in Signal Mountain campground, waking early each morning and racing out to find the bears.  Not returning until after dark each evening.  There I was before the beautiful Teton mountain range and despite always being a mountain lover I only saw the animals.

By the time I returned to Spokane, life as I knew it was ruined.  No more could I live in the city with the noise of traffic, sirens and electric wires.  Nothing on television interested me, nothing on the internet.  I stared out my picture window at the many birds that visited my feeders and the beautiful flowers that grew in my yard, but they were not enough.  By September 1, I had sold most of my possessions and purchased a small travel trailer that was to become my home.  I left- my destination was the national parks.

First stop was Mt. Rainier.  Then there was Yellowstone, Tetons, Crater Lake, Zion, Arches, Bryce, Bosque del Apache, and so much more.  Traveling was expensive and so I began my sharing of the national parks by volunteering in them, first at Yosemite and then at North Cascades.

And then the notion of learning about the wolves came to me and I decided to spend a winter in Yellowstone – no volunteering, just watching and photographing wolves.  But, 06 was shot and there were few wolves to watch.  It took me exactly 2 seconds to get hooked into the story of the wolves after 06 was killed and I began sharing all that I saw with all of you.

Actually, I had been a blogger for years and so sharing photos and their stories on Facebook was natural for me.  And, it was the sharing of Yellowstone that captured people and brought them into my life.  They loved the photos and the stories.  They loved seeing Yellowstone through my eyes and they loved that I shared it all with them.  They said that my words and images brought them back to their favorite place, if only in their minds.  Many people came to rely on my posts when planning their trips to Yellowstone.  I was then, and always have been, about sharing our national parks with others.

Over time, as I learned more about the wildlife and certain dangers that existed, I fine tuned my sharing in order to help keep the animals safe.  No sharing of animals outside of the park or near the boundary during hunting season.  I have adjusted myself many times – as my understanding has grown and I was able to determine the difference between people’s needs and the needs of the wildlife.  Are the animals safely inside of the park?  Yes.  Is there any abnormal threat to the animals?  No.  Then, seeing as how the animals belonged to all of us, I was free, and obligated to share with others so that they could enjoy them also.

Because, as you can see by the beginning of this tale, had the story of 399 not been in the local newspaper, I would not have known she existed and my journey would not have begun.

Despite the fact that many were drawn to my Facebook page by the stories I shared about the park, I began to come under scrutiny for sharing the location of the animals with others.  I had already been sharing with people for 2.5 years and done much soul searching about what was appropriate and what was not.  The fact that the wildlife in Yellowstone get to trade a longer, safer life for educating the public and creating advocates was true.  If people did not get to see the animals, they would not care about them.  There were no perfect answers to any of the questions and I had to weigh things out for the best possible scenario for the wildlife, while being true to my heart.  And, the best outcome was that people would come to Yellowstone, or read my stories, and that they would care that the wild animals continued to walk the earth forever.  They would teach their children how valuable nature was for the health of our environment and the happiness in our hearts, and they would fight to keep what was left.  I was looking far into the future, long after I was gone, and dreaming of a gentler world where nature was valued far above the monetary.  And, so I made a decision that my advocacy would center on the sharing.  That through my stories people would come to know the animals and care about them.  And, that if they had a chance to come to the park, my hope was that they would see the wildlife for themselves.  Because seeing can be equal to caring.

People have made suggestions, based on the well being of the wildlife, and I have listened and learned – making adjustments if necessary.  But, when photographers began coming after me for sharing the general locations of the numerous black bear families last spring, I immediately knew that though they voiced concern for the animals, they only cared about their photo ops.  It can be pretty tough to photograph wildlife with a lot of people around, many of them walking in front of our lenses, making a lot of noise and doing things that we do not approve of, but the animals don’t belong to us and don’t exist just for our photos.  And, I am a photographer who values a quiet photo opportunity as much as anyone.  But, the truth is, there are so many photographers, many of them behaving just as badly as any tourist with a point and shoot, crowding us, walking in front of our lenses, telling people to move over so a real photographer can get a shot, that every scene is going to be crowded anyway.  Just the photographers alone will take up all of the parking spaces, and fill the areas that have  a good view of the animals – but do we have that right, to monopolize the animals so that we can get a great photograph to sell for profit?  I say it is a privilege, not a right.  When we get lucky and get some shots, we should be grateful for those times.  But, we have to share with all of the other visitors because we are in a national park that is for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone.

And, so I have continued to share the wildlife, just like before and the anger has mounted, transitioning into smear campaigns that are designed to destroy me.  The goal is to get me kicked out of the park, since the other photographers can not control my actions.  I am speaking of only a few people here, as most think that this campaign against me is bullshit.  People are slandering me when they tell everyone that I slandered them – some kind of irony.  They are further slandering me by telling people I have said things about them.  Some of the lies have been told in public, in front of people who witnessed the events and knew that lies were being told, but they continue, all in an effort to shut me up.

I can only say that I believe in the national park system and that if there is any place in this country where fairness should prevail, it is here.  All of us should have equal access to the beauty in the park and to the ability to enjoy ourselves, unmolested by self-serving people who only care about their own needs and nothing else.  My focus always has been on sharing with others and if I were to stop, then what would I do?  I would no longer be true to my heart and my values – I would no longer be giving back to society, to all of you, for the gift of being here and the talents of writing and photography.  I get nothing out of any of this, other than the knowledge of knowing that I did the right thing.

Given the fact that there are so many who make a really good living off of the parks and the wildlife, that this fight is so directed at me, is a mystery.  There are people who have been selling reports of wildlife activity for years.  And then there are guides whose job it is to take people to the wildlife.  And there are stories in newspapers, reports on the park websites.  And then there are the rangers who tell people.  And then there is the tell tale sign of scopes or cameras at the side of the road, aimed in the direction of an animal, with thousands of visitors driving by.  And, the photographers all race to tell their friends when an animal is spotted, and from that moment on there will be a crowd with big lenses, hanging out, telling stories, gossiping about others, and waiting for the animals.  I call this mess the firing line gossipers, with nothing else to do but bad mouth others while waiting.  I don’t know if singling me out has to do with jealousy or mental illness but there is no logical rhyme or reason for claiming that I have the possible blood of every animal in the national parks on my hands.  People make a living selling scopes, or cameras, or prints, or stories.  They get tips for showing people the animal of their dreams.  There are no secrets in the park, nor should there be unless well off the road in the back country.  And, when it comes to a nest or someone’s special find in the backcountry, I tell no one.  When my loudest accuser found a special animal a year ago and others asked what he was up to, I refused to tell them – because it wasn’t my place.  But, if near the road where people can’t miss the cameras, everyone should be invited to enjoy.  Particularly when some of those same cameras are there with those same animals day after day, all day, for weeks at a time.  Perhaps so much time spent with one animal makes a person feel as though they can claim ownership, but that is not true – none of it belongs to them and if they want their own thing, they need to leave the park and find it themselves.

I have spoken to many rangers about this concept of discrediting people because they share the wildlife in the park and they are baffled that anyone would think that doing so is a reasonable act.  They say that they have never seen anything like what is occurring now and that the fight has been a huge topic of conversation this winter.  They say it is a national park and the animals belong to everyone, and that they tell people where the animals are.  The people the rangers tell are at the park and not in cyber land thousands of miles away with no plans to visit any time soon.  And, we can tell people where the animals are all we want but there is no guarantee that they will see them.  Because, animals move, some times great distances.  So, knowing a general location is of minimal use – people still have to search or get lucky and find photographers who have already located the animal.  Like at Lake last year, when they were looking for Blaze and her cubs – the photographers camped out there for weeks, waiting for the bears to appear and so everyone knew where to look.

I knew a person who visited the parks last year and was carrying on about the secrecy of animal sightings and how wrong that was.  Someone, a well-known and respected photographer who told most everyone, told them about the foxes in the Tetons.  When they arrived to photograph the foxes, local folks there were not happy that they knew but this person thought that was bullshit and laughed about how unreasonable it was to keep the animals a secret.  But, now, suddenly, I am an awful person, putting animals at risk for doing the exact thing I have always done – the thing that they liked in the beginning.  And the person who told them about the foxes, they are fine because it is okay if only photographers are told, or as long as they know, and no one else.  But, guess who is being blamed for so many people showing up at the fox dens?  Yep, me, despite the fact that I did not know about them until much later, after they had been advertised in the newspapers and on the website.  People had been photographing the foxes for weeks by the time I arrived, but somehow I am responsible for the actions of others.

So, the hypocrisy is stunning.  But none of that matters to me, nor is it any of my business.  What does matter is that no matter the consequences that are coming my way from this campaign to get me out of the park, I continue doing what is right in my heart.  What all of my moral values tell me is the right thing – and that is the true knowledge that this world was not made for the individual, it was made to be shared by all.

 

Where we go from here defines the future of nature – our own choices and actions have consequences.  Do we act solely for ourselves, or for the good of all?  The choice is yours.

Do we walk the road for the greater good, or just for ourselves? The choice is yours.
Do we walk the road for the greater good, or just for ourselves? The choice is yours.

deby

Owner, publisher and photographer for The Yellowstone Daily. And, passionate about nature and wildlife

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