Wildlife Photography - Glacier National Park New Wildlife Photography and Viewing Policy is Unrealistic

Most people enjoy wildlife photography. In fact, the chance to see and maybe photograph wildlife is among the top reasons people go to Glacier National Park. Are you aware that there are new viewing rules in place than may surprise you? Today, wildlife viewing and wildlife photography may be a bit more challenging based on the stringency of the new rules.  The new Glacier National Park Wildlife Viewing Policy states, "To protect wildlife the following activities are prohibited" 1) Willfully approaching, remaining, viewing, or engaging in any activity within 100 yards of bears, or wolves, or within 25 yards of any other wildlife including nesting birds; or within any distance that disturbs, displaces, or otherwise interferes with the free unimpeded movement of wildlife, or creates or contributes to a potentially hazardous condition or situation." (italics added).

two mountain goats, billy on cliff (Tony Bynum/tonybynum.com)

How close to wildlife should wildlife photographers and tourists be is a subject of ongoing debate and controversy among regulators, the public, and even some wildlife photographers. Depending on who you ask, opinions differ about proper wildlife viewing policies. I'm not suggesting we all should become Steve Irwin's but if we now no longer can "remain, view, or engage in any activity within 25 yards of any wildlife" and give up our own viewing space, at any cost, we may be creating additional problems. I am saying we should all use some common sense, but the rule, as written is un obtainable assuming people will remain part of the Glacier National Park fabric. The National Park Service, Glacier National Park appears to believe the observer/visitor should always leave wildlife alone, and ignore and retreat when they are too close. In other words, you might say, "view briefly from a distance, but don't stay long." In fact, you might say, "don't stay at all.

The New Wildlife Viewing Policy  Glacier National Park's most current policy is, "25 yards from any other wildlife, including nesting birds," and "100 yards from bears or wolves." And you must  not, "interfere with the free unimpeded movement" (GNP "Final Compendium 2013" section 1.5, iii, h). After a little more research online, I found this diagram on the Glacier National Park website. It describes 100 feet from mammals like sheep, moose, and elk, but the "Compendium" says only 25 yards. By the way, most of the wildlife photographs on the Glacier National Park website are not consistent with it's own wildlife viewing policy.

distance from wildlife that is considered safe by the National Park Service.

Personally, I can live with this but the truth is, some animals become very habituated and exceedingly aggressive when this policy is employed. Let me explain based on years of observing and photographing wildlife across North America. The National Park Service, Glacier National Park has updated it's rules for how close you can be to wildlife in Glacier National Park. Here's the new policy found in the, "2013 Final Compendium" section 1.5, 111,:

specific language from the Glacier National Park "compendium"

So, given the realities of actively recreating in Glacier National Park - on or off trail, on or off pavement, one could wholly comply with this rule? It is verging on absurd and a challenge in the very least.

When Animals are in Charge.  In some national parks (Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Yellowstone and others), wildlife like elk, deer, bears, and even birds and buffalo are so habituated they can actually become dangerous to spectators or observers, because they have zero fear of humans, in fact, they know they're, "in charge." Essentially some wildlife have completely lost their fear of humans and have become more aggressive because they have learned that their aggression will actually cause humans to unnecessarily retreat. This power gives them the "upper hand." Contrast that with the national forest, or areas where the 25 yard rule is not active. I'd challenge anyone to get within 25 yards of wildlife (with the exception of some campgrounds where you can find wildlife that are routinely fed). . . In areas where you CAN get as close as you want, you seldom see them up close. Why is this?

Mostly, I think it's due to hunting pressure. That said, if wildlife know that you will run away when they come toward you, they will learn to move faster and with more aggression toward humans - this is opposite to what you would expect. So, it's my observation that in areas where wildlife are "protected" and people continuously retreat from wildlife, the wildlife become more aggressive and therefore more dangerous. Again, I think this is because there is no consequences to the animal for getting too close to humans -- they know they are dominant. In some cases, elk become so aggressive that they charge people and even vehicles, and "attack," when not provoked.

I'm not suggesting you approach potentially dangerous wild animals like a grizzly bear, but when we run from wildlife, naturally they learn that they are in charge. When people don't move or they put some pressure on wildlife they gain respect and are far less likely to approach people. Some argue that close is as close as the species will allow without causing harm. In places like Glacier National Park wildlife photography and viewing is sometimes like shooting fish in a barrel. There are times when if all you want is a photo of a sheep or a goat you might well find your subject cruising the parking lot on Logan Pass.

If we always follow the policy, what should we do when wildlife want to be in the parking lot? Do we have to leave? If you follow the rules, and you stay within 25 feet or approach any wildlife, you are violating the policy and by all accounts could be fined. Go to Logan Pass in the summer and you can see violations all day long . . . Seriously, keeping a safe distance from wildlife is always paramount. But creating rules that teach wildlife to become more "bold" or less afraid of people, might make them more dangerous, not less. It may also result in more dangerous animal human conflict as well. And why even write a policy that we all know will be constantly violated?

Animals that believe they are in charge usually are the one's that get in the most trouble. By there being little or no consequence for aggressive behavior, wildlife become more and more aggressive because they have nothing to fear. In other words, if they learn that charging, or exhibiting aggressive behavior toward humans is acceptable, they will continue to be more and more aggressive. In some cases, wildlife need to know that humans are not subjects to mess with. Just a word of caution. I'm not suggesting we need to chase grizzly bears to make them respect humans. Grizzly bears, are by nature, more likely to stand their ground and fight or even attack if provoked by unwanted advances. By all means don't approach grizzly bears. If you want to photograph grizzly bears do so at a distance and use long lenses.

For other species like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose, they generally get as close to you as they are comfortable with little risk of harm to either of you. I have a comfort zone that I do not allow wildlife to enter. It's different depending on the species. If wildlife get too close it makes for difficult photography too, so I think 25 yards, for most things is close enough. But I do not like to allow wildlife that may get to close either by accident or by design, push me around.  I do not retreat quickly because sometimes that tactic teaches them that they are dominant and therefore could increase the likelihood of animals taking chances that they would naturally not take. I don't set out to get close. I do use common sense and give wildlife the distance and respect they deserve, but when I'm outside, in the mountains, I own my space and I decide what to do in it - each circumstance requires calumniated decision making.

At the end of the day, I would rather the wildlife in Glacier National Park not frequent parking lots and some popular nature trails, but as long as the policy is retreat and don't stick around to view them, they will continue to put everyone in the strange position of violating the wildlife safety rules. Today is also not a time to discourage people from heading to Glacier National Park for some wildlife photography. Just take a look at the huge budget cuts Congress has sent the National Park Service, but that's a story for another day. I believe if we all used a little more common sense things would be much better for everyone, including the animals.

A final thought.  Take a look at the Glacier National Park website and note how they use images of wildlife - how many of those images do you think were captured using it's own Wildlife Viewing Policy?  Even this photograph of a black bear violates it own policy.

Here are a few helpful links.

Glacier National Park Wildlife Policy Press Release: http://www.nps.gov/glac/parknews/media13-44.htm

Glacier National Park Wildlife Safety:  http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/wildlifesafety.htm

Glacier National Park Wildlife Compendium, section 1.5, iii, h http://www.nps.gov/glac/parkmgmt/upload/Compendium-FINAL-2013.pdf

For more information about the wildlife policy in Glacier National Park, contact Denise Germann at 406-888-5838.

Enjoy yourselves out there in Glacier National Park, but don't stick around and watch the animals, just move along please . . .

Sincerely, Tony Bynum, Montana Photographer