Yellowstone National Park has often been called the “Serengeti of the North,” and there’s nothing more exciting than venturing into its backcountry or famed Lamar and Hayden Valleys in hopes of coming across a herd of bison, pronghorn or a pack of wolves. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to visit the park when it’s at its least crowded, there’s the added thrill of being the only one—or one of just a handful of people—to view such a sight at that particular time.
Those times, however, may soon become more rare. New apps are now enabling visitors to enter in the exact spots where they are currently seeing animals in Yellowstone. So instead of hoping for a lucky happenstance as we have in the past, we can just check our smartphones and rush to the places where we know some wildlife action is presently occurring.
But are these apps truly good for the wildlife, for the park rangers and for us?
Ensuring a wildlife sighting
For several years now, various websites have been keeping track of animal sightings in Yellowstone. For example, on the Yellowstone Wildlife website not long ago, a message had warned of grizzlies feeding on a bison carcass near the Yellowstone River Trail. Given that last summer a grizzly killed a tourist in Yellowstone, up-to-the-minute updates such as this one could save lives.
However, the new smartphone apps are meant not as much to warn people away as to increase their chances of having many more animal sightings than what would typically occur by chance on any given trip to the park. It makes sense that if you spend money to travel to Yellowstone, you’d like to ensure that you make the most of your visit. The sheer enormity of the park can be overwhelming, so knowing where to spend your limited time in such a huge place is undeniably helpful.
One such new app called Where’s a Bear promises news of “up-to-the-second animal sightings” in Yellowstone. And the Yellowstone Wildlife website recently began offering a similar app, YNP Wildlife. Even when your device is without service, the application will store all your sighting information and upload it automatically when service is regained. It will also check for new sightings that have been posted.
The new apps mean there’s almost no excuse anymore not to have several wildlife sightings in Yellowstone National Park.
Questioning the safety
But not everybody thinks making wildlife-sighting information readily retrievable by smartphone is a good idea. As it is, people who stop roadside because they notice other people have parked to look at something can make a small crowd quickly grow to one numbering in the hundreds. People often sideswipe each other in these circumstances. And grizzly bear sightings at such spots are especially challenging for park rangers, who have to both direct traffic and keep people a safe distance away.
On a recent trip to Yellowstone, I, too, stopped when I saw a group of people roadside. It turned out that a black bear with her two cubs was hiding behind a log. After about five minutes, I decided to leave since there was hardly any room to see anything over the tens of tripods and stacked vehicles. I preferred to take my chances by going farther down the road to find a more isolated spot.
Some would argue that the new apps pose no real threat because a bear, moose, elk, bald eagle or wolf isn’t likely to hang around a place just so another visitor can get there. On the other hand, a pack of wolves that has killed a bison might remain at a site for days while it feeds on the carcass.
Park personnel also worry that if these new apps significantly increase the hordes at wildlife sightings, animals could become too comfortable around crowds. A grizzly bear, for instance, that is too habituated to people is even more dangerous than the average bear. The question becomes: Are these new apps going to be bad for the wildlife? For the park rangers? For park visitors?
Not everyone is jumping on the “app wagon.” According to the Associated Press, there are those, such as wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen who lives in Jackson Hole, just south of Yellowstone, who have been watching a popular grizzly in Grand Teton National Park over the past few years. The grizzly recently emerged from hibernation with her three cubs.
Mangelsen said he didn’t rush off to share the news online.
Do you think wildlife-spotting apps will enhance your national park visits, or will they have a negative impact on your experiences?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,