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Over the course of my time here I have noticed that all too often photographers, be they the “big lens” crowd, or just the average tourists with a point and shoot or phone have a tendency to go about photographing the wildlife in ways that negatively impact the animals, or the enjoyment of others to view the animals.
For starters, lets review the actual Park rules.
Don’t cause the animals to change their behavior
Stay 100 yards from Bears and Wolves
Stay 25 yards from smaller predators like Coyotes
Stay 25 yards from Moose, Elk and so on.
No stopping/parking in the road (stop/park on the other side of the white line)
No walking on the road (walk on the other side of the white line)
No feeding wildlife
No yelling at/making noises/etc to cause the animals to change behavior for your shot
Now of course the vast majority of people and photographers break these rules to some degree and the Rangers and the regulars understand this will happen, however there is “bending” a rule and there is gross violation of a rule.
Simple “rules” that we all need to be aware of - if 1 person goes closer, others will follow.
Yes, a single person could be 50 yards off the road and still at the legal distance from a fox and not cause the fox stress. However where one goes others will follow and suddenly you have 20 people there and, even though all are still at least 25 yards from the fox, the fox is stressed and moving away, while being followed by a group of people. FAIL.
The road and your car are the best places for many photo opportunities. Wildlife is used to the road and view it as a human area, wildlife is used to cars/trucks and are not overly bothered by them. However when a person leaves the vehicle, wildlife tends to pay more attention and if that person leaves the road to approach an animal, in many many cases (not in the case of Bison/etc) the animal will leave the area.
Let the bear, wolf, etc CROSS the road. Trust me, the wolf isn't jogging 20 yards off the road for fun, it wants to get around you and go to the other-side, (ok, sometimes it is out for a jog, but its best to assume it wants to cross). By blocking animals from crossing the road you are causing stress and in the case of wolves and others, depending on the season, they are trying to get back to their young to feed them, you blocking them is a major negative.
When it is an animal trying to cross the road then DO STOP, but stop 100 yards +/- away from the animal and provide it with an opening in which to cross. Once its over the road, drive closer, stop for a moment and take your pictures.
Bison WILL MOVE, just because you have a couple of them standing in the road doesn't mean you have to sit there for an hour. However it isn't just bison who stand in the road, many others also do the same, just keep moving forward gently and the animal will move out of the way. Animals die all the time due to getting in the road and cars/trucks not stopping (think a Bison at night), by training them that cars stop for them, you increase the risk to the animals.
Be aware of your area and road conditions. You don’t want to cause a Bison to run on ice covered roads, also the animals need a place to get off the road. If you are on a grade and there is no area for the animal to leave the road, you may be behind them for a little while as they continue on their way.
At times its fine to go ahead and stop IN the road, just do not block traffic and do not “abuse” the stop. Be aware of the road, clearly do not stop near the crest of a hill or on a blind curve, doing so endangers yourself and others. If you have an animal on hand, stop for a moment, take several pictures and then move to a parking area from which you can assess the situation.
Do not “surround” animals. Often you see groups of people spread out and, if not fully surrounding an animal, their actions produce too much stress. Its always best for people to stay in one group, if people spread out the animal will tend to become stressed as its “escape” routes away from people become reduced. Stay together.
I can't stress this enough, leaving the road to photograph a Predator will very often result in the animal moving farther away. I've watched people walk 200 yards from the road to get to animals that are 500 yards away. Yes, the people never get closer than 300 yards, but the animals almost always spot the people and move farther away, thus making the hike out a waste of time, plus the animals are farther away for anybody else who wished to view them.
Everything is subject to the unique situation at hand, there is no “one rule fits all circumstances”, however if you try to avoid causing the animal stress, if you try to avoid risking harm to yourself or others, generally you are doing the right thing.
Here is a scenario that is fairly common: A Black Bear is sighted in the Tower region. We will see 20+ people standing off the shoulder of the road enjoying watching and photographing the bear, this isn't by itself an issue. The Rangers tend to provide a good bit of leeway to the people in regards to the 100 yard rule, if the bear isn't being stressed and the people are following the Rangers instructions we may be standing at 75 yards instead of 100.
The people are all grouped together and listening to the Rangers instruction.
Nobody is standing in the road.
All vehicles are park over the white line and therefor off the road.
The Bear is relaxed and just doing “bear stuff”.
However, if you add some variables into the mix it can change the scenario suddenly.
Lets remove the Ranger from the equation and/or add in some folk who don’t understand the situation. So, instead of everybody standing in a group at 75 yards, now we have several people who move off to the right and/or left and also away from the road. These people may still be 75 yards away but they are starting to surround the bear, this increases the likelihood of the bear becoming stressed due to no longer just keeping an eye on one group near the road, now it has to keep an eye on multiple groups, some who have ventured into the bears “territory”, the area away from the road.
Suddenly what should be an enjoyable experience turns into a negative due to stressing the animal. This is a no win for us or the bear.
Please note that even at 100 yards, multiple groups of people surrounding the animal is not the way to do things. Yellowstone provides wonderful opportunities for viewing and photographing animals, just remember that we are guests in the animals home and we need to respect them.
By following rules, or “bending” them in cases where its not going to negatively impact the animals, or other peoples viewing we can enjoy the wildlife without causing undo stress.
Always 1st think about how what you are doing impacts the animal and then take into consideration how your actions may impact the viewing chances for other visitors to the Park.
If you observe a situation where its clear that things are being done wrong, never hesitate to inform other visitors that there is a “better way”, don’t be rude, don’t be abusive, just be polite and courteous.
If you observe a major violation, don’t hesitate to take pictures of what is going on and report it to the 1st ranger you have contact with. Generally such actions are warranted if somebody is using a drone, harassing an animal, feeding an animal or some other serious issue.
Thanks for reading this and I hope you have a wonderful time in YNP.
(the drone operator in the picture was cited by a Yellowstone Park Ranger)