Exposing the Big Game

Forget Hunters' Feeble Rationalizations and Trust Your Gut Feelings: Making Sport of Killing Is Not Healthy Human Behavior

Exposing the Big Game

Playing Russian Roulette with Grizzly Matron 399 and the Bears of Yellowstone

MAY 24, 2021

BY LOUISA WILLCOXFacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Photo by Tom Mangelsen.

This is the first of a two-part essay on the famous bear matron of Jackson Hole, Grizzly 399, and the mounting threats she and other grizzlies face. Part 2 will focus on a path forward. You might also want to listen to a fascinating Grizzly Times podcast (2 episodes) with renowned photographer Tom Mangelsen, who waxes eloquent about his 15-year relationship with this special bear and his advocacy for the wild.

Few if any animals have been more celebrated than 399, the matron grizzly bear of Grand Teton National Park. Each year, families flock to Jackson Hole hoping to catch a glimpse of her shepherding her latest brood – now four irrepressible yearlings. Her grown-up daughter, Grizzly 610, accompanied by two pre-adolescent cubs now as large as she is, generates almost as much excitement. Today, about 10 grizzlies of 399’s lineage make their living along Jackson Hole’s roads in the company of people.

With a global fan club, Grizzly 399 is an ambassador for grizzlies everywhere. Her tolerance for people is legendary. To cross a road, she is known to look both ways before threading through parked cars and mobs of delighted onlookers, as doors slam and kids shriek – placidly returning to fetch a cub still wrestling with a road cone. Who could still cling to the myth that grizzlies are vicious man-eaters after beholding the ways of 399?

But as the fame of these roadside grizzlies had grown, so have the crowds. Current systems to keep visitors and grizzlies safe are breaking down. As summer tourist season begins with a vengeance, officials are often either nowhere to be seen — or they are firing projectiles at bears in a cruel, disorganized, and futile effort to haze grizzlies rather than manage people.

Not long ago 399 and her four youngsters were swarmed by 300 people – with no Park Ranger in sight. And 610, known as an especially protective mom, bluffed charged two tourists out of a mob of 150 who got too close. East of the park, 863 (aka “Felicia”) and her adorable new cubs face a tsunami of people, cracker shells fired by state managers, as well as semis barreling down the adjacent highway at 70 miles an hour.

Anywhere grizzlies are visible we are seeing scenes of bedlam and terrifying close calls – and tourist season has just begun. Last year, record numbers of people — throngs numbering as many as 1000 — gathered any time 399 or other roadside grizzlies appeared. The spectacle lasted from Memorial Day to New Year’s Day, when 399 broke trail for her youngsters through chest-deep snow to reach her den.

Caring citizens, most of them veteran photographers and wildlife watchers, are doing what they can to keep tourists from crowding Jackson Hole’s grizzlies. Last year these citizen volunteers saved the lives of 399, 610 and other grizzlies many times. So did Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Mike Boyce, who spent long days and nights trying to keep 399 safe as she ventured south of the town of Jackson onto private lands.

But these efforts are a drop in the bucket of a sea of need. This summer we can expect another valence shift in tourism as pent-up families seek beauty, solace and adventure in our National Parks. With ever more airlines servicing the Yellowstone and Grand Teton region, another record-breaking year of visitation is virtually guaranteed – and with it, more pressure on the region’s world-class wildlife.

When I asked veteran Jackson News and Guide reporter Mike Kosmrl what he thought this summer would bring for Grand Teton’s grizzlies, he offered one word: “chaos.”

This chaos surrounding 399 and her offspring highlights the threats posed by so many people, compounded by long-neglected deficiencies in grizzly bear management. Courageous government action is urgently needed – on behalf of not just grizzlies, but also on behalf of the multitudes who care about these wild animals.

Grizzly 399’s Unique Strategy: Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Grizzly 399 makes her living near people, teaching generations of cubs how to live amicably along roads and around recreation areas. Her main reason for settling into these human-impacted environments is to keep her cubs safe from aggressive male grizzlies—known as boars—that often prefer to hang out in more remote areas.

For her and other female grizzlies who frequent roadsides, staying near people is a better bet than mixing it up with boars who can and will kill cubs. Every day, these females and their offspring literally depend on the kindness of strangers, to borrow from Blanche Dubois’ famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire.

To these grizzlies, people are allies – even, at times, babysitters. This should not surprise us given the stories told for millennia by Native Peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere about humans living among bears, saved by bears, even marrying bears.

We know more about 399 than most grizzly bears because she has lived her long life so close to us. Tom Mangelsen, a world-famous photographer, has photo-documented his 15-year relationship with this special bear, co-writing a lovely book about her.

A successful and attentive mom, 399 is the quintessential mother with muffins in the oven. She birthed and successfully raised three sets of triplets. And last year, she performed a miracle when she emerged with quadruplets at the age of twenty-four – ancient for a mother bear. Her feat is especially noteworthy given that only eight litters of quadruplets have been documented in the Yellowstone ecosystem since 1983.

We cannot forget the difference that one good mom can make. All existing Yellowstone grizzly bears are the decedents of perhaps only 50 females alive during the early 1980’s. Every mom matters. And a female such as 399 is an Olympian.

But despite her competence as a mother, so far 399 has raised only two females who have also had cubs, Grizzlies 610 and 962, the latter just appearing with a new cub. The reasons are straight-forward. Grizzly bear birth rates are inherently low and many of 399’s offspring have been killed by humans.

But humans can be benevolent. There is no doubt that 399 would not still be with us were it not for the dedication of the Park Service. Indeed, a past superintendent of Grand Teton Park, Mary Scott, spared 399’s life when, as a young mom with cubs, she mauled a jogger who came too close as she fed upon a dead elk. Since then, with the help of volunteers who comprise its Bear Brigade, Grand Teton Park has tried to ensure that everybody — bears and humans — stays safe.

But the crush of park visitors is overwhelming agency capacity. Despite clear warning signs that this year would see record tourism, government agencies are again on their back heel. They have also failed to adapt to the tangible impacts of a warming climate, which is prompting bears to be up long before the Brigade is typically assembled and long after it disbands for the season.

Moreover, when 399 steps outside the borders of the National Parks, she enters a more dangerous world.

The Perils of an Olympian Mom

Much of 399’s home range lies outside the protected landscapes of Grand Teton Park. She dens and forages on Bridger Teton National Forest lands that abut the park. The Forest is a deadlier environment because it is managed for “multiple use,” meaning mostly for the benefit of hunters, ranchers, off-road vehicle users and increasingly, mountain bikers. Not surprisingly, one of 399’s cubs, Grizzly 587, was killed by managers after depredating cows on a Forest Service grazing allotment, where notoriously anti-grizzly ranchers dominate management of public lands that are ostensibly owned by all citizens.

399 must also dodge poachers who often are undeterred by the hefty penalties that can be levied under the Endangered Species Act — but too often are not. Indeed, one of her daughters, Grizzly 615, aka Persistence, was gunned down illegally as she ate a moose carcass on National Forest land close to the Park border.

She and other bears such as Grizzly 863 must also avoid being splattered on the roads as trucks and tourists speed to their next destination. And even inside Grand Teton Park, roads are dangerous. Two of 399’s cubs have been killed by vehicle collisions.

399 must, moreover, navigate private lands, dogs, compost piles, beehives, garbage and more. Even in Jackson, where wildlife is abundant, too many people still unthinkingly contribute to destroying bears by poorly managing food and garbage. One woman has continued to feed grizzlies and other wildlife despite government efforts to dissuade her. The results are predictable. One of 399’s cubs, Grizzly 964, developed such a bad garbage habit that she was relocated last summer to the north end of the ecosystem.

And now 399 and other roadside bears must dodge projectiles fired from shotguns, part of an ill-conceived, haphazard and doomed effort by the Park Service to haze her and other grizzlies away from the roadside environment they depend on.

Of Riot Control and Half Measures

With the Park Service understaffed and its Bear Brigade not fully assembled, the agency is floundering to deal with crowds gathering long before Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff date for summer tourist season. But instead of expanding its program and more aggressively managing the people, government officials are taking out their anxiety on innocent bears by shooting them with rubber bullets and rock salt or dosing them with bear spray when they near roads. The effort is erratic and disorganized, with contradictory messages to the public about what the agency is doing and why. (The Park Service did not respond to an interview request by deadline).

Such riot control tactics will fail, even as they harm the bears. Roadside females are more terrified of male bears in the backcountry that might eat their cubs than they are of the poorly implemented and ill-thought-out hazing efforts. Grizzlies such as 399 and 610 have long relied on limited roadside habitats and cannot—more importantly will not—just pick up and relocate.

Many roadside bears would rather suffer the punishment of rubber bullets, no matter how severe, than mix it up with aggressive bears that can be a mortal threat. Proving this point, years ago one black bear was actually bludgeoned to death by rubber bullets while cowering along a narrow strip of habitat along a road in Yellowstone Park. And hazing is deeply stressful and confusing to the animals. As anyone who has trained or rescued a dog knows well, stress and fear can make animals more unpredictable and aggressive towards people.

Furthermore, an effective hazing program is extraordinarily difficult to implement. Negative experiences need to be unrelenting and consistent if bears are to learn to avoid specific environs such as roadsides. Execution of such a program requires resources, discipline, and skill on the part of managers—something that has never been achieved before. Without this mix of ingredients, hazing programs devolve into little more than the gratuitous infliction of pain on targeted bears. And bears are intelligent, which makes the job even harder. In Yellowstone, grizzlies targeted for hazing quickly learned to disappear when the green Park Service trucks arrived and return to the roadsides when they left.

The Park Service is hardly the only agency failing these bears and the broader public who care about their well-being. Others with authority over grizzlies include the state of Wyoming, Bridger Teton National Forest, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Department of Transportation, and Teton County.

Importantly, the state of Wyoming dictates wildlife management on nonpark lands. State managers have long been hostile towards large predators such as grizzlies, seen as competitors for elk and moose. In the zero-sum calculous of state managers, any elk or moose killed by a predator translates into lost hunting-license revenues. As problematic, those predators that managers do allow to live are seen as little more than grist for the mill of trophy hunting. It is no surprise that state managers resent celebrity roadside grizzlies because, beloved by nonhunters, these bears represent an alien and even existential threat.

The fundamentally antagonistic view of Wyoming Game and Fish towards these bears and their fans has been on full display on Togwotee Pass in recent days, where officials are exploding cracker shells at Felicia and her newborns and imposing erratic constraints on viewers. (Wyoming Game and Fish did not respond to an interview request by deadline). Wyoming Game and Fish large carnivore specialist Dan Thompson, who is in charge of these efforts, made his view clear several years ago, saying: “Habituation towards people and the roadside bear situation, it’s not something that we’re supportive of.”

Gutted by budget cuts, the Bridger Teton Forest is also ill-equipped to manage mounting numbers of recreational users on forest lands near Grand Teton Park, even as the agency continues to shirk its legal duty to conserve wildlife. Similarly, Teton County has struggled to ensure meaningful sanitation on private lands. And Wyoming Department of Transportation has done precious little to improve safe passage for wildlife, in contrast to successful systems of overpasses and underpasses built in Montana’s Flathead Valley and in Canada’s National Parks.

But the agency with the clearest legal authority to help these bears is the one that is most conspicuously absent: the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The Endangered Species Act charges FWS with recovering threatened species, using the best available science in decision-making, and ensuring that federal and state agencies take a precautionary approach in decisions affecting protected species. Despite this duty, the FWS has done little lately other than sanction the killing and relocating of grizzlies that are increasingly deemed to be “surplus” by FWS managers.

Thankfully, citizen volunteers have been stepping into the breach.

Into the Breach

In recent years, concerned citizens, most of them photographers, have been helping manage tourists at often understaffed wildlife jams – and they are up to their eyeballs this spring. Too numerous to count, citizens routinely step in to slow traffic and keep tourists from getting too close, literally saving not only people who are careless, but also the lives of roadside bears. Any time a person gets injured, the involved bear almost invariably pays the ultimate price.

Recognizing the scale of the need, last winter, photographers Jack and Gina Bayles created Team 399 to raise money through donations and the sale of merchandise to help support Grand Teton Park’s Wildlife Brigade, through the Park’s nonprofit arm, Grand Teton Park Foundation. They are hoping that contributions from these bears’ enormous social media following can be channeled into work to help keep them safe.

This summer Team 399 is also partnering with Friends of the Bridger Teton National Forest, the nonprofit private adjunct of the Forest, to sponsor additional seasonal staff to help educate and manage roadside throngs of bear-watchers in Felicia’s haunts along Highway 287 on Togwotee Pass. After a successful foray last year, Friends of the Bridger Teton has again hired two roadside bear ambassadors to help manage viewers along this hazardous stretch of highway.

Meanwhile, other local organizations are engaged in complementary work. The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation is working with Wyoming Department of Transportation to improve signage along area roads. Greater Yellowstone Coalition has been working with the Bridger Teton Forest to increase the number of bear-resistant storage boxes at campsites. Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, Wyoming Untrapped and Cougar Fund work to raise awareness of the value of large carnivores, especially grizzlies, wolves and mountain lions. And Friends of 760, named for a grandson of 399 who was killed as a result of government bungling, is working to make sure similar mistakes do not happen again.

But while citizens and nonprofit groups can help immeasurably, they lack legal authority and anything close to adequate resources to tackle the crisis facing grizzlies around Jackson. The government must step in — immediately and in a much bigger way — on behalf of the public trust and threatened grizzlies that will always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Part 2 outlines a path forward to ensure that 399 and the other grizzlies of Greater Yellowstone flourish.

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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Reckless Yellowstone tourists cause bison stampede

David StregelikeOctober 21, 2020 12:40 pm

After leaving Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, Lisa Stewart stopped when she saw a bunch of people by the river, thinking it might be a wolf sighting.

Instead, it was several tourists acting recklessly as they approached a herd of bison and caused a stampede.

Stewart told USA Today/For The Win Outdoors that for up to 10 minutes she witnessed bison grunting and stomping the ground and slowly moving down the hill.

“The people saw them and started walking closer and closer toward the bison,” Stewart explained. “They [the bison] kept getting more agitated by the minute. They walked farther down. Out of my sight, but I could still hear them grunting and blowing.

“While I had my iPhone up taking a picture, I heard the rumble of the stampede and immediately moved my camera from still photos to video and captured the video you see.https://www.youtube.com/embed/z3fBnVvUfls?feature=oembed&wmode=transparent

“You only see about four-to-six people on the video, but there were more in the same spot the bison come running from,” Stewart said. “The fishermen grabbed their stuff and ran, and then you see the bison running, and I felt relief the people didn’t get trampled.

“Then all the sudden you see the bison appear between the fishermen and tourists, then they turn and run toward the tourists. I was scared for a second, but the second wave of stampeding bison turned again and ran across the river to join the herd on the other side.”

Also on FTW Outdoors: Watch as a bear gets touchy-feely with a shocked jogger

Bystanders yelled at the tourists to get away from the bison and made it known how stupid they were for even being down there, much less walking toward them, Stewart told For The Win Outdoors.

Yellowstone warns visitors that animals in the park are wild and unpredictable, no matter how calm they appear to be. The park says the safest view of wildlife is from the inside of a car. It recommends remaining 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, such as bison and elk. Clearly that wasn’t the case here.

“It was amazing that they didn’t heed the warning of grunting, snorting and stomping feet!” Stewart said. “I stopped filming cause I really thought that someone out of view had to have been hurt and was going to help if needed.

“I was actually shaking a tad, for I really thought the bison were going to run through those people.”

Afterward, the tourists made their way back to their vehicles, but they heard an earful from bystanders.

“I could feel the earth rumbling under my feet when it was happening,” Stewart told For The Win Outdoors. “It was one of those moments your stomach turns over at the split moment you think disaster is about to happen.

“Thank goodness nobody was hurt, and I hope they all learned a lesson. It reaffirmed the awesome power of such beautiful creatures in my eyes.”

Photo courtesy of ViralHog.

What not to do in a bear attack? Push your slower friends down in attempts of saving yourself, says the National Park Service

By Alaa Elassar, CNN

Updated 1:24 PM ET, Sat August 8, 2020

What to do if you encounter a bear

(CNN)If you’re being confronted by a bear, there’s a few things you should know before running away.As people across the country visiting parks and taking trips to the mountains find themselves in terrifying encounters with bears, the National Park Service (NPS) has offered a few tips on what to do if you’re face-to-face with the furry beasts.The first tip? “Please don’t run from bears or push your slower friends down in attempts of saving yourself,” the NPS joked in a Facebook post Wednesday.⁣⁣The best thing to do to safely remove yourself from a bear confrontation is move away slowly and sideways so you can keep an eye on the bear without tripping. Bears are not threatened when you move sideways, but like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals.Content by CNN UnderscoredFace masks that support a good causeFace masks have become our new normal, and with these masks, you can make sure you’re doing even more good than usual.https://www.facebook.com/v2.2/plugins/post.php?app_id=&channel=https%3A%2F%2Fstaticxx.facebook.com%2Fx%2Fconnect%2Fxd_arbiter%2F%3Fversion%3D46%23cb%3Df1ae9f06b8eb90c%26domain%3Dwww.cnn.com%26origin%3Dhttps%253A%252F%252Fwww.cnn.com%252Ff182f800e65a064%26relation%3Dparent.parent&container_width=780&href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fnationalparkservice%2Fposts%2F10157206218541389&locale=en_US&sdk=joey&width=780″Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.⁣⁣ Do not push down a slower friend (even if you think the friendship has run its course),” the NPS added. “Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Don’t we all?”Another tip is to identify yourself by making noise, specifically your voice, so the bear doesn’t confuse you for an animal and knows you’re human. While a curious bear might come closer or stand on its hind legs to examine and smell you, it is not threatening.

A bear attacks a woman. She fights it off -- with her laptop

A bear attacks a woman. She fights it off — with her laptopWhile bear attacks are rare, their behaviors can be unpredictable and an attack can lead to serious injuries or death, according to the NPS.To avoid an encounter with a bear, hike and travel in groups, do not allow bears access to your food and leave the area if you see a bear.If you are attacked by a brown or grizzly bear, leave your backpack on and play dead by laying flat on your stomach with your hands behind your neck and legs spread. If the bear continues to attack you, fight back by hitting the bear in the face.If you are being attacked by a black bear, do not play dead but instead try to escape to a secure place or if you can’t, fight back using any available object, according to NPS.⁣⁣

Yellowstone Tourist Trips And Falls When Charging Bison Takes After Her

Published on July 19, 2020July 19, 2020  in News/wildlife

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She wasn’t a complete idiot.

It was probably for the best that a woman who got way too close to a herd of bison tripped when one chased after her.

That’s because the woman reportedly said that she knew the best thing to do in that situation was to play-dead.

The video, at least in this instance, appeared to show that was a good strategy. The charging bison stopped, investigated the scene, and eventually left her alone.

The individual who shot the video said the incident occurred at Nez Perce Creek and and the woman was “a Montana local so she knew to play dead in that situation.”

Of course the best way to avoid that situation is not to get too close to the bison in the first place.

Reports are that the woman was not injured. 

No word on the condition of the man, appropriately dressed in green shorts and sandals, who tried to pick up a tree branch (and failed) in an effort to look like he could actually do something against a 2,000 pound bison.

Caught in a Yellowstone bison jam? Turn up the AC/DC

Tourists planning to visit Yellowstone National Park or elsewhere in bison country might want to store some AC/DC on their playlists.

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office in Montana on Tuesday revealed that the heavy-metal band’s music has helped to clear the roadways of stubborn bison.

“When deputies respond to a bison on the road, they turn on lights and siren and encourage the animals to leave the road with an air horn,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “With a reluctant bison, they’ve been known to play ‘Hells Bells’ over the speakers – that usually seems to work.”

So-called bison jams are fairly common inside Yellowstone National Park, and can leave tourists stranded for 30 minutes or longer.

The iconic critters are encountered outside the park, too, and local motorists can attest that it’s sometimes difficult to persuade a 1,000- to 2,000-pound bison to let traffic pass.

It’s usually a job best left to sheriffs or park rangers.

Yellowstone guidelines call for tourists to remain inside their vehicles when in close proximity to bison, because the enormous animals are surprisingly fast and unpredictable.

But that does not always prevent scary encounters.

Last month a tourist recorded dozens of bison in a stampede. One of the animals smashed into the family’s rental car and cracked its windshield.

It’s doubtful that music would have helped in that case.

However, the power of music is not to be underestimated when it comes to close wildlife encounters.

In late July a hiker in British Columbia, Canada, claimed that she scared off a mountain lion that had been stalking her by playing the heavy-metal song “Don’t Tread On Me” by Metallica.

–Top image courtesy of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office. Other images courtesy of ©Pete Thomas

2 bears euthanized in Yellowstone National Park, search for third underway

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, WY – Two black bears have been killed in Yellowstone National Park this year and officials are looking for third habituated black bear – all three bears reportedly showed no fear around people after acquiring human food and becoming food-conditioned.

According to park officials, last month, a  black bear bit into an occupied tent and bruised a woman’s thigh (the bite did not break the skin due to the tent fabric and thick sleeping bag)

That incident occurred at a backcountry campsite along Little Cottonwood Creek

Black bear sniffing dumpster near Ice Box Canyon; Jim Peaco; June 14, 2015; Catalog #20152d; Original #IMG_3675

Rangers suspect that this might have been a bear that gained access to human food in this same area in previous years. Over subsequent days, rangers set up cameras and a decoy tent at the campsite to determine if the bear would continue this behavior. With rangers present, the bear returned and aggressively tore up the decoy tent. The bear was killed on-site on June 11.

In early July, at a backcountry campsite along the Lamar River Trail, campers left food unattended while packing up gear allowing a black bear to eat approximately 10 pounds of human food. Campers who visited the same campsite the following evening had numerous encounters with the same bear. Their attempts to haze the bear away failed. Rangers relocated multiple campers from the area and the bear was killed on July 10. The incident is still under investigation.

Since July 18, at the front country Indian Creek Campground, a black bear has caused property damage to tents and vehicles in its search for human food. Park staff actively hazed the bear from the campground, but also set up cameras. If the bear returns, managers will take appropriate actions based on the current circumstances, including additional hazing or removal.

Park staff have had a busy summer responding to bears in campgrounds, backcountry campsites, and along roadsides. Visitors are reminded to stay at least 100 yards away from bears at all times and to store food and scented items properly.

Once a bear acquires human food, it loses its fear of people and may become dangerous. This process is called “habituation.” The park has killed two habituated black bears this year and is trying to capture a third. All three bears exhibited bold behaviors, showed no fear around people, and have demonstrated food-conditioned behavior.

Park officials say these incidents serve as unfortunate reminders that human carelessness doesn’t just endanger people; it can also result in a bear’s death. Allowing bears to obtain human food even once often leads to them becoming aggressive toward people. Learn more about what you can do at go.nps.gov/yellbearsafety [go.nps.gov].

According to officials, Yellowstone National Park does not typically relocate bears for three reasons: 1) there are no areas in the park to move the bear where it wouldn’t have the continued opportunity to potentially injure someone and damage property, 2) surrounding states do not want food-conditioned bears relocated into their jurisdictions, and 3) adult bears have large home ranges, good memories, and could easily return to the original area.

It is common for visitors to observe black bears in Yellowstone. About 50 percent are black in color, others are brown, blond, or cinnamon. Learn more about black bears [nps.gov].

Cartoon: Smokey’s shutdown survival guide

Two weeks into a shutdown, and our national parks are getting the Bundy Family treatment. Dig a proper latrine and make sure it’s deep enough to hold all the stuff coming out of Mitch McConnell and the White House.

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Changes in Yellowstone Climate

Distant snow-covered mountains and an ice-covered lake with large cracks
Scientists with the National Park Service and other organizations closely monitor variables that may reflect a changing climate. In Yellowstone, these include whitebark pine, snowpack, the greening of plants, and wildlife.

NPS / Jim Peaco

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a complex region, encompassing approximately 58,000 square miles and 14 mountain ranges. Weather varies greatly across steep elevational changes, bringing snowfall to some areas, and warm, dry conditions to others. This dynamic system has provoked the curiosity of researchers for a long time.

Across Space and Time

Space and time are critical to the evaluation of real-world data, and every study defines their parameters differently. This can make it difficult to get a sense of what is actually occurring. Climate summaries over longer periods of time and across larger areas tend to mask local extremes. Conversely, a continuously changing set of short-term reference averages (weather “normals”) could unintentionally obscure the long-term magnitude of change. It is important to look at climate information across many scales and to use available data and models to arrive at reasonable answers to our questions about how climate has changed, how those changes will affect the park, and what impacts we may be able to anticipate in the future.

Analyzing smaller areas within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), say in Yellowstone National Park or on the Northern Range, poses specific challenges. Small regions have fewer actual monitoring stations to feed data to computer models and gridded weather data is often used to fill in the gaps. As a consequence, small-area analyses may not be as accurate. Local field observations from stream gauge and weather stations can be used to verify some of the observed trends, and to describe local conditions to which the ecological system may be responding. This “ground-truthing” allows researchers to arrive at reasonable conclusions about ecological activity.

Temperature and Precipitation

Global temperature is the master force affecting climate. Everything else that climate affects—sea level rise, growing season, drought, glacial melt, extreme storms—is driven by changes in temperature. Weather stations have been maintained within the GYE since 1894, resulting in some of the longest running records of temperature and precipitation anywhere in the United States. These days, increasingly sophisticated satellite technology as well as data sets yielded by the science of climate modeling, also help climate experts and park managers assess the current situation in the GYE across several scales.

There is evidence that climate has changed in the past century and will continue to change in the future. Researchers looking at annual average temperatures report an increase of 0.31°F/decade within the GYE, consistent with the continuing upward trend in global temperatures. Recent studies show mean annual minimum and maximum temperatures have been increasing at the same rate of 0.3°F/decade for the GYE. Conditions are becoming significantly drier at elevations below 6,500 ft. In fact, the rise in minimum temperatures in the last decade exceeds those of the 1930s Dust Bowl Era.

Future Temperature and Precipitation

All global climate models predict that temperatures in the GYE will continue to increase. Projections of future precipitation vary based on differing scenarios that account for future levels of greenhouse gas emissions, which depend upon economic, policy, and institutional improvements, or lack thereof. Any potential increases in precipitation that may or may not occur will be overwhelmed by temperature increases. Considering the most recent trends in which warmer temperatures have been exacerbating drought conditions during the summers, a warmer, drier future for the GYE appears likely in the coming decades. By the latter part of the 21st century, the hot, dry conditions that led to the fires of 1988 will likely be the norm, representing a significant shift from past norms in the GYE toward the type of climate conditions we currently see in the southwestern United States.

Orange sunlight illuminates the side of a snow-covered mountain peak above a snow-covered forest
Changes in the area covered by snow are especially important because snow reflects solar radiation and tends to keep land cool.

NPS / Neal Herbert

Snowpack and Snow Cover

Snowmelt in the alpine areas of the Rocky Mountains is critical to both the quality and quantity of water throughout the region, providing 60–80 percent of streamflow in the West. Throughout the GYE, snow often lingers into early summer at high elevations. Each year, a large spike in water flow occurs when snow starts to melt at lower elevations, usually in late February and early March. Peak flow is reached when the deep snow fields at mid- and high elevations begin to melt more quickly, typically in June. Minimum flow occurs during winter when all the previous year’s snow has melted, temperatures have dropped, and precipitation comes down as snow instead of rain so only water flowing from underground sources can supply the streams. By contrast, the proportion of stream flow due to rain storms is significantly lower than the contributions of snow melt.

Climate change is expected to affect both snow accumulation and rate of spring melt. In some places, warmer temperatures will mean more moisture falling as rain during the cooler months and the snowpack melting earlier in the year. The reduction in snowpack is most pronounced in spring and summer, with an overall continued decline in snowfall projected for Yellowstone over the coming decades. The Yellowstone, Snake, and Green rivers all have their headwaters in Yellowstone. As major tributaries for the Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado rivers, they are important sources of water for drinking, agriculture, recreation, and energy production throughout the region. A decrease in Yellowstone’s snow will affect millions of people beyond the boundaries of the GYE who depend this critical source of water.

Future Snowpack and Snow Cover

The interaction between snowpack, temperature, and precipitation involves a complex interchange between heat and light. Warming temperatures increase evaporation; increased moisture in the air could lead to more snowfall and cloud cover. The increased cloud cover could block additional heat from reaching the surface of the earth resulting in cooler temperatures below. However, increased temperature could possibly limit snowfall instead—by converting it to rain or by melting snow rapidly once it falls, thereby driving snowlines further up the mountains. Recently modeling work indicates that snowpack will almost certainly decline in the long-term.

Changes in the area covered by snow are especially important as snow reflects more solar radiation out to space (albedo) than bare ground and tends to keep the surface cool. When land is exposed, sunlight is absorbed by the surface of the earth. This raises the overall surface temperature, which leads to more melting and less snowcover.

A river flows through a rocky canyon and creates white water below rocks
Climate change will affect streams differently, but increased variability is expected along with a shift in the timing of peak flows.

NPS / Jim Peaco

Stream Flow and Water Temperature

Glaciers, snowpack, and rainfall produce water that flows through streams, lakes and rivers, and these waterways are critical to life. Analyses of streams during 1950–2010 in the Central Rocky Mountains, including those in the GYE, show an 89% decline in stream discharge. Reduced flows were most pronounced during the summer months, especially in the Yellowstone River. In addition, stream temperatures have changed across the range of the Yellowstone, with a warming of 1.8°F (1°C) over the past century. Continued warming could have major implications to the management and preservation of the many aquatic resources we have today. Changes in volume and timing of spring runoff may disrupt native fish spawning and increase nonnative aquatic species expansion.

Growing Season

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that overall forest growth in North America will likely increase 10–20% as a result of extended growing seasons and elevated CO2 during the next century but with important spatial and temporal variations. Forests in the Rocky Mountain/Columbia Basin region are expected to have less snow on the ground, a shorter snow season, a longer growing season due to an earlier spring start, earlier peak snowmelt, and about two months of additional drought. However, despite a longer growing season, Yellowstone forests will likely be less dense, more patchy, and have more diverse age structure. Experts project less tree cover in much of the park as well as potential migration of new species like Ponderosa pine. Complicating matters, increased drought stress and higher temperatures may increase the likelihood of widespread die-offs of some vegetation.

The integrated runoff response from the Yellowstone River has been toward earlier spring runoff peaks, which suggests that the majority of the park is experiencing shorter winters and longer summers as a result of snowpack changes. Changes in these seasonal patterns will likely disrupt vegetation growth and development, causing plants to bud, flower, fruit and die at different times of the year than they do now. Those changes, in turn, would alter or seriously disrupt wildlife migrations, one of the key resources for which Yellowstone National Park is globally treasured.

Extreme Events: Insect Activity

Although outbreak dynamics differ among species and forests, climate change appears to be driving current insect outbreaks. Western spruce budworm outbreaks were more widespread and lasted longer in the 20th century than in the 19th century primarily because of fire suppression and increasing fir populations. However, patterns of spruce budworm outbreaks have been tied to climate nationwide.

Summer and spring precipitation are positively correlated with increased frequency of outbreaks over regional scales and long time frames, but experimental evidence suggests that drought may promote infestations. Although bark beetle infestations are a force of natural change in forested ecosystems, several concurrent outbreaks across western North America are the largest and most severe in recorded history. From 2004 to 2008, the area of mountain pine beetle outbreaks increased across Wyoming from 1,000 to 100,000 acres. At the end of 2014, an estimated 30% of whitebark pine trees in the GYE had been killed as a result of mountain pine beetle, whitepine blister rust, wildland fire, and other factors. Since 1999, an eruption of mountain pine beetle events has been observed that exceed the frequencies, impacts, and ranges documented during the last 125 years. Aerial assessment of whitebark pine species populations within the GYE has indicated a 79% mortality rate of mature trees.

These changes may be early indicators of how GYE vegetation communities will shift due to climate change. These outbreaks of bark beetles in the West have coincided with increased temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns, suggesting a response to a changing climate. Warming temperatures and the loss of extreme cold days reduce winter overkills of insects, speed up life cycles, modify damage rates, and lead to range expansions, particularly in the north.

Future Insect Activity

Climate change, and particularly warming, will have a dramatic impact on pest insects, and the recent trends of increasing outbreaks are expected to worsen. The greatest increase in mountain pine beetle outbreaks is expected to occur at high elevations, where models predict warmer temperatures will increase winter survival. At low elevations, however, mountain pine beetle populations may decrease as warmer temperatures disrupt the insects’ seasonality. Climate change will also alter host susceptibility to infestation. Over the short-term, trees will likely increase in susceptibility to pests due to stress from fires, drought, and high temperatures; over the long-term, these stresses will cause tree ranges and distributions to change. Moreover, climate change and changes in CO2 and ozone may alter the conifers’ defensive mechanisms and susceptibility to beetles through their effects on the production of plant secondary compounds.

Insect infestations are damaging millions of acres of western forests and there is clear evidence that damage is increasing. Nonetheless, future predictions of the extent of infestations remain uncertain because our understanding of insect infestations is incomplete. Key uncertainties include the influence of drought and precipitation changes, how altered forest/host composition will alter outbreaks, the biochemical response of trees and evolution of defensive mechanisms, regional differences, and the interactive effects of fire, plant disease, and insect outbreaks.

Smoky haze above an open forest with mountains in the background obscuring a cloudy sky and the sun
Rapid climate and associated ecosystem transitions in the Rocky Mountains have occurred in the past and will likely occur in the future. Projections include a higher frequency of large fires, longer fire seasons, and an increased area of the western US burned by fire.

NPS / Jim Peaco

Extreme Events: Fire Activity

The increasing frequency of warm spring and summer temperatures, reduced winter precipitation, and earlier snowmelt in the West during the last 20 years has led to an increase in the frequency of very large wildfires and total acres burned annually. The relative influence of climate on fire behavior varies regionally and by ecosystem type, but generally current-year drought, low winter precipitation, wind conditions, and high summer temperature are determining factors for area burned in the Rockies.

Fire dynamics have been altered by climate indirectly through its effects on insect infestations and forest health. By changing the forest environment, bark beetles can influence the probability, extent, and behavior of fire events, but despite the widely held belief that bark beetle outbreaks set the stage for severe wildfires, few scientifically and statistically sound studies have been published on this topic. That fire promotes beetle infestations is clearer; the fire-caused injury changes conifers’ volatile emissions, increasing their susceptibility to bark beetles.

Future Fires

Most evidence suggests that climate change will bring increases in the frequency, intensity, severity, and average annual extent of wildland fires. Models project that numerous aspects of fire behavior will change, including longer fire seasons, more days with high fire danger, increased natural ignition frequency and fire severity, more frequent large fires, and more episodes of extreme fire behavior. The best evidence is for increases in the average annual area burned. However, the charcoal in lake sediment cores is telling a different story in Yellowstone. These records extend back 17,000 years, and were taken from Cygnet Lake on the Central Plateau. Charcoal from 8,000 years ago, when temperature increases were equal to what we are now experiencing, shows more frequent but smaller fires than today.

Projecting the influences of climate change on future patterns of fire is extremely difficult. Fuels, along with fire weather, determine fire size and severity: the stand- replacing fires of today open up the forests where stands have been burned, limiting fuels for the next fire. As a result, areas with frequent fires also tend to have small fires. Other factors, such as increases in non-native, annual grass invasions, may alter fire dynamics, making predictions based on climate alone difficult.

Continue: Examining the Evidence for Yellowstone

More Information

Quick Facts

The Issue

The global climate is changing, and is already affecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

  • Average temperatures in the park are higher now than they were 50 years ago, especially during springtime. Nighttime temperatures seem to be increasing more rapidly than daytime temperatures.
  • In the last 50 years, the growing season (the time between the last freeze of spring and the first freeze of fall) has increased by roughly 30 days in some areas of the park.
  • At the northeast entrance, there are now 80 more days per year above freezing than there were in the 1960s.
  • There are approximately 30 fewer days per year with snow on the ground than there were in the 1960s.

Bad Selfies: 5 Places Not to Pose in Yellowstone



Yellowstone National Park is an untamed wilderness area. Don’t pose too close to hazards… Ouch! Here are five bad locations to pose along with suggestions on how to take pain-free photos.

1. Right next to a geyser

Couple taking a selfie next to a geyser.

Yes, Yellowstone’s most famous thermal features are amazing. Yes, a photo standing alongside one of the biggies—Grand Geyser, Steamboat Geyser, Old Faithful—would surely impress your friends back home. But when geysers erupt, superheated water powered by steam can blast hundreds of feet into the air, and there’s no telling exactly in which direction it will spray.

Even if you escape a scalding, the ground in Yellowstone’s thermal areas is thin and fragile; people who have stepped off trails and boardwalks have broken through the crust into boiling pools and died.

Better idea: Keep a safe distance from geysers by sticking to the boardwalks and trails. That way, your photo will capture a better sense of the geyser’s size and power.

2. In Yellowstone Lake

Girl taking a selfie in Yellowstone Lake

Those lapping waves, that deep blue water: North American’s largest highest-altitude lake definitely makes for a refreshing backdrop. But think twice before you dive into its depths for a photo: The water temperature usually hovers between 40°F and 50°F. That’s so cold that the survival time for someone immersed in the water is only about 20 minutes, and why many people have drowned in Yellowstone Lake.

Don’t even think about jumping into the deep water—if you can’t get back in your boat easily, your clock is ticking.

Better idea: Shoot from the shore, from the viewing platforms in front of Lake Hotel, or from the safety of a boat or kayak.

3. In a hot spring

Hiker taking a selfie near a hot spring in Yellowstone.

Like the sound of a natural hot tub? What about a hot tub that exceeds 200°F? A dip in that kind of water can quickly scald a person to death; even if you’re pulled right back out, third-degree burns will likely finish the job.

And just in case you need another reason to steer clear of boiling hot springs: Touching them could damage the delicate bacterial colonies that give features like Grand Prismatic Spring its beautiful colors.

Better idea: If you must have a soaking selfie, head to two places in the park where the water is safe to sit in: the Boiling River (near Mammoth) or Mr. Bubbles (in the backcountry Bechler area).

4. On the edge of the canyon

Man taking selfie in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

What a dramatic shot: You, a thundering waterfall, the bright walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone all around you. But this enormous canyon is more than 1,000 feet deep in places, and the cliff walls leading down to the river are sheer. It would only take one wrong step—or one bit of crumbling soil—to plummet straight down.

Better idea: Snap your shot from safe overlooks at Uncle Tom’s Trail, Artist Point, or Point Sublime.

5. With a bison—or bear, or wolf, or elk…

Family taking a selfie next to a wild bison.

All together now: Wildlife at Yellowstone is wild.

These large, unpredictable animals are not pets. They’re not domesticated. They can and will injure, maim, or kill you if you get too close. Sounds like common sense, but in just the summer of 2015, 5 different people were gored by bison—4 of them trying to take a selfie with one when the bison gave them its horns.

Better idea: You were lucky enough to spot one of Yellowstone’s incredible animals: Train your camera on it, not yourself! And know the rules about how far to stay away from wildlife.

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