JACKSON, Wyo. — Grand Teton National Park is clarifying its rules against getting too close to wildlife after a grizzly bear on two separate occasions charged at tourists who were watching her from atop their cars.
The new rules emphasize that people need to heed any ranger or other park official who tells them to move away from wildlife. Park officials say people who don't listen can be fined anywhere from $100 to $5,000, depending on what a judge thinks about what they did.
The rules don't change the distance people are supposed to keep away from grizzlies and wolves, which remains no less than 100 yards.
But the new rules spell out that people must not interfere with the movement of wildlife. The new rules also say people need to make their best effort to move away whenever they've discovered that they're accidentally too close to wildlife.
A grizzly killed a hiker in Yellowstone National Park three weeks ago — Yellowstone's first death from a grizzly in 25 years — but that's not the main reason for the policy change in nearby Grand Teton.
Two female grizzlies with cubs have become big tourist attractions in Grand Teton this summer. The grizzlies have been easily visible and have created traffic jams by spending a lot of time near roads, behavior biologists speculate discourages aggressive male grizzly bears from threatening their cubs.
On two separate occasions this summer, one of the grizzly mothers charged at people who were watching her from on top of cars. Nobody was hurt, and park officials said they're responding with rules that are intended to protect people.
"That was definitely a red flag for us, that she felt threatened or disturbed enough to charge a person who was on top of their car," Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said Wednesday.
Yellowstone also is clarifying its wildlife viewing rules along the same lines but won't have its changes in place until perhaps this fall, said Yellowstone spokesman Dan Hottle.
"Grand Teton was just in a little different situation that forced them to clarify their rules a little quicker," Hottle said.
Until now, Grand Teton didn't strictly enforce the 100-yard minimum for people who were inside their cars, Skaggs said.
This summer's big traffic jams with tourists sitting on top of their cars, leaning out of windows and sunroofs, and blocking the grizzlies and their cubs from crossing roads forced the change.
"As these wildlife jams have become more congested and bigger we have seen more reaction by the bears to these situations," she said.
Worst of all for bears, some people have tried to feed the grizzlies. Yellowstone and Grand Teton both have gone to great lengths over the past few decades to make sure bears don't get used to eating human food — a bad habit that can make them dangerous to people and require bears to be euthanized.
Park officials so far have been able to beat the bears to food thrown from cars, Skaggs said.
A team of about a dozen volunteers led by a park ranger helps patrol Grand Teton's "critter jams." The duties of the Wildlife Brigade include asking people to move their cars farther up the road if it looks like their vehicles are blocking a bear or other wildlife from crossing.
"For the most part the average park visitor is so thrilled to see these bears, they immediately follow the directives that are given by the Wildlife Brigade. They get in their cars and move their cars when they're asked," Skaggs said.
Getting too close to wildlife in a national park is a misdemeanor. So too is violating a lawful order of a government employee or interfering with a government function by not heeding a ranger's request to back away.
Skaggs said park rangers almost always lean toward educating people instead of punishing them with citations. On average, they only cite one person a year for getting too close to wildlife.
"It's only going to escalate toward a ticket if they fail the attitude test," she said.
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