Until recently, I’d refused to even contemplate the phrase “loved to death” when applied to our public lands. But having witnessed white privilege run amok in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and then following the fate of a grizzly named Felicia in the Tetons, I’ve begun to embrace the concept, though not in the way most people do.
I have been part of a movement to promote inclusion for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) at governmentally managed outdoor spaces for the past nine years. The mounting complaints of overcrowding and defilement in some of our marquee national parks seem like a ruse to further limit access to natural places, just when BIPOC like myself are beginning to line up at their entrances. My skepticism has been bolstered by the white-supremacist underpinnings of the “organized outdoors” (recreation, conservation, and environmentalism), founded by and for elites in a country built on privilege, exploitation, and a history littered with broken promises to BIPOC communities.
A bittersweet morning in Yellowstone National Park began to further dull any optimism I felt about the fate of public lands. Sassia and I were making a final sweep of Lamar Valley before moving on to Grand Teton National Park. At the eastern end of the valley, a couple of photographers stood at the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. I slowed our vehicle to a crawl, not wanting to risk making what I have been calling a “FOMO (fear of missing out) stop”—when you stop your car because other people have stopped, prompting yet more people to stop, just in case some compelling species of wildlife has been spotted. Most of the time, it’s someone who has pulled off the road to check a map, chew on a sandwich, or just catch a view.
Sassia rolled down her window to inquire about the situation. “You just missed some bears by this much,” one of the photographers said, displaying a small space between his thumb and forefinger. We looked back, spied a grizzly sow and two cubs, and immediately turned around.
It was a week before Memorial Day and still early in the morning, so, incredibly, the four of us had the bruin trio to ourselves for what in wildlife wonderland felt like an eternity. With us sitting ringside, the mama bear laid back and nursed her babies. It was awe-inspiring, the kind of nature encounter dreams are made of.
Unsurprisingly, more and more people arrived. Though the park barely pulses with internet or phone service, word still manages to get around. Soon, one of Yellowstone’s wildlife-management rangers appeared. Not long afterward, the sow staged her cubs near the side of the road, preparing to cross. Agitated, she sniffed at the gathering crowd, some of it creeping closer, cellphones and point-and-shoot cameras extended.
By the time we reached Grand Teton and its parade of massive bear jams, we’d been stared at for a week straight in remote Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It became triggering to observe wildlife similarly ringed by leering people, 99.9% of whom were white and behaving as if entitled to the experience. It played into the constant sensation among BIPOC that we’re all being stared at like animals in a zoo. By Grand Teton, Sassia and I had developed a strong sense of empathy with apex predators and the ridiculous sight of humans wading into their habitat, armed with mobile devices and prerogative. We started avoiding the bear-stalled traffic, even if those places held the possibility of a peek at Grizzly 399, “the world’s most famous bear,” and her quadruplet cubs.
We were the bears, we realized, and the bears were us. None of us are to blame for our so-called “conflicts” with beings that don’t look like us. How the friction with the bears is resolved will influence not just the sustainability of how we interact with nature, but, if BIPOC are excluded, the very future of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the rest of our planet.
“How does it feel to be hidden in plain sight at a site of popularity?” Sassia wondered in a journal passage. “What’s it like to be the most famous bear in the country? What happens when you’re the most famous bear in the country? What do you receive? What do you give? The mugs, the T-shirts, the ‘name,’ the petitions, but just a number. To be collared, tracked, saved(?), written about. Capitalism—what’s it to a bear?”
Maybe people are indeed loving places and species to death, but since BIPOC are largely disconnected from the organized outdoors, it’s white people who are spreading this toxic form of tough love. Hyperaware of the racial composition of any situation, as are most BIPOC, Sassia and I counted two Black folks and one other Asian American Pacific Islander among the numerous wildlife jams in which we were ensnared. We struggled to remember many Brown or Latino people.
Our observations are aligned with the data. Visitation and workforce demographics at the National Park Service continue to skew about 80% white, nearly 20% more than the U.S. population at large. Only 1% of visitors to Yellowstone identified themselves as Black or African American, according to the park’s own study. Wildlife watching is on the rise, but is overwhelmingly white, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s national survey on recreation.
Bison jam by Lamar River in Yellowstone. Photo by Glenn Nelson
Between Mammoth and Tower in Yellowstone, we saw a white family literally park in the middle of the road so they could record bison, which otherwise were just about everywhere else in the park. We were traveling in the opposite direction, so we noted that this single vehicle had caused a backup at least a mile long. Sassia and I discussed whether we thought BIPOC would commit an infraction as blatant, selfish—and public—as stopping in the middle of the road. We live in a nation where driving can be a life-threatening endeavor for Black men, we reminded ourselves. We also acknowledged a fear of authority among BIPOC, seared into our DNA by centuries of abuse—which would be amplified in such a white environment as a national park.
Our conclusion: No way.
Imagine our stance on disturbing grizzly bears, which is not only dangerous to humans and bears alike but is also a federal offense under the Endangered Species Act.
“Unfortunately, it’s usually the people that are misbehaving,” said Terry Gunter, Yellowstone’s lead bear biologist, during a Facebook live session. “It’s easier to manage the bear in that case than to try to manage a couple hundred people …”
While we were at or near the parks, a subadult grizzly, presumed to be an offspring of 610, the daughter of the grand dame 399, was euthanized for being too habituated to human contact. Her sibling met the same fate months later, even after having been hazed and boated across Jackson Lake in an attempted relocation, which never seems to work; bears almost always find their way back to sources of food rewards. A solo hiker was mauled by a grizzly near Mammoth Hot Springs, and a ranger was bluff charged by a grizzly that was agitated by a growing roadside throng. A tourist who wandered too close with her cellphone had been bluff charged by a different grizzly; the woman, Samantha R. Dehring, 25, of Illinois, was later found guilty of breaching the 100-yard protective zone for grizzlies and intentionally disturbing wildlife.
This all took place before Memorial Day—so early in the summer season that snow was still on the ground.
More and more grizzly encounters have not been so relatively benign. Earlier this year, Leah Davis Lokan, 65, of Chico, California, was dragged out of her tent and killed by a grizzly in Ovando, Montana, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In April, Charles “Carl” Mock, 40, a Montana wilderness guide, died after being mauled by a grizzly near the western entrance of Yellowstone. Both bears were put down by wildlife officials. In October, an elk hunter was mauled outside of Cody, Wyoming; he and his hunting partner shot the attacking female grizzly, and her two cubs were later euthanized by Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Charging grizzlies were killed by hunters at about the same time in two other Yellowstone gateways, Gardiner and Island Park.
The drama surrounding Grizzly 863, also called Felicia, was unfolding last spring at Togwotee Pass, east of Grand Teton. Already a singular roadside sensation, Felicia has two cubs this year, causing the grizzly cognoscenti to lose its collective mind and congregate for pics or peeks along the stretch of highway between Dubois and Moran, where the speed limit is 70 mph. Lacking the personnel to manage crowds the way national parks do, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on June 11 asked people to avoid the pass so it could intensely haze Felicia in an attempt to break her roadside habituation. The USFW later declared initial success but asked for continued avoidance of the area; the hazing continues, according to various photographers and wildlife activists in the area.
In bear management, hazing typically escalates to relocation, then termination—the way it unfolded for 610’s subadults. Felicia’s followers feared the worst. Grizzly sows with cubs police roadsides because the proximity offers fertile feeding grounds in spring and a measure of protection against male grizzlies, which are known to devour their own offspring. The USFW’s initial request was met with an outpouring of emotional protest on social media, as well as a “let bears be bears” petition on Change.org that has attracted more than 76,000 signatures.
Grizzly couple, Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Glenn Nelson
This particular jam isn’t going away anytime soon. Yellowstone visitors would pay an average of $41, in addition to entrance fees, to ensure seeing roadside grizzlies, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Environmental Management. The grizzlies create 155 jobs and more than $10 million a year for the regional economy, the study said, and 81% of survey respondents said they would like to see bears, more than anything else, during a park visit.
Turbocharging the grizzly conflicts is a larger problem: No longer sheltered in place, lacking international alternatives, and having discovered the outdoors as a coronavirus respite, unmasked hordes surged to our public lands as if they were toilet-paper shelves at the beginning of the pandemic. Visitation at Yellowstone was up 50% during Memorial Day weekend. During spring and summer, Arches National Park in Utah typically closed its gates daily before 9 a.m. because it had reached capacity. Six of the most popular parks—Acadia, Glacier, Haleakalā, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, and Zion—required reservations to enter in 2021. The U.S. Forest Service, which allows dispersed camping, is contemplating a managed system to meet increasing demand.
Preservation of the prevailing elitism in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem already has been well under way. Hotel capacity is nearly capped in the small gateway towns, as are campground spots in and around the region. There is also pressure by park concessionaires to be allowed to charge market lodging rates, which would further limit access. And forget about an alternative like living in the region. Jackson, the gateway to Grand Teton, is 86% white and has become a haven for the ultrarich; it has the highest per-capita income and highest-valued real estate in the country. Private property already is at a premium in Teton County, where Jackson is located, and 97% of the land is federally owned or managed by the state. Jackson’s workforce is being squeezed to the peripheries. Accelerated development in the Bozeman-Big Sky corridor straddling Yellowstone is stoking fears of damaging encroachment on critical and sensitive habitats. Bozeman already is 90% white. The whole crush feels like wilderness gentrification.
If, in an effort to ease park congestion, a nascent audience of color gets locked out or discouraged by overcrowding, we imperil the future not only of these places, but also, given the changing demographics of this country, of how we deal with existential questions, like the impacts of climate change. People, as they say, protect the objects of their adoration. For communities of color, the organized outdoors is in danger of becoming a forbidden love.
When I sent her a story about Felicia’s hazing, Sassia texted back, “White supremacy and capitalism really sucks the life out of everything, including nature.” I am powerless to disagree. The social media police have tagged the ignorant, misbehaving, selfie-with-bison-taking masses as “tourons,” a mashup of “tourist” and “moron.” To me, they’re all overindulged white people, an invasive species choking our public lands to death.