Who has the right to view wildlife? On its surface, the answer is a no-brainer: everyone. Dig deeper and you’ll start to get the disclaimers: unless the people gather too closely to private property, or are noisy, or cause a traffic jam, or scare away the animal. Ten people are okay, but not 20. No photographers. Those people will do anything to get the shot.
And whatever you do, never share the location of a snowy owl or wolf pack with the general public because “they” can’t be trusted. And God forbid you post your rare bird sighting on eBird. Birders with their “life lists” in hand will descend like thousands of hungry eagles on a salmon run. Plus, there’s also the issue of money. The cost of entry and parking in state and national parks continues to rise. What happens when only those with certain financial means can enjoy public lands?
Most areas have rules in place regarding safe distances to observe wildlife, as well as legally designated parking pullouts. However, in the excitement of the moment, people slam on their brakes in the middle of the road, or run toward an animal to glimpse it before it disappears, or keep inching closer to the subject until the poor critter gets uncomfortable and leaves (ruining it for everyone) or attacks the person (also ruining it for everyone, including the animal, but proving Darwin’s theory of natural selection). If you’re lucky in one of these situations, you’ll be gently reminded of these policies. Or if you’re less fortunate, you might get fined or scolded or removed, like an unruly passenger on a flight who is being disruptive and dangerous. As far as policing by your fellow companions goes, duct tape isn’t out of the question—most Alaskans can patch a boat with a few strips, so they’ll have no problem restraining you until the ADF&G arrives.
Opinions abound about the best ways to protect and enjoy wildlife. Some believe that accessibility is the key to appreciation, conservation, and education. Others abide by the rule, “keep it secret, keep it safe.” Whether or not to disclose when and where you’ve seen a particular species has become a divisive issue, often pitting niche groups against one another.
Patti, a resident in Juneau, says she doesn’t share viewing locations. “Not only do photographers show up en masse and trample vegetation, but in one instance, a very special bear was killed by hunters.” Likewise, message boards in Kodiak remind photographers not to post bear image locations during the fall hunting season. If a location is easily accessible to a photographer, it’s likely a perfect spot to use one’s bear tag.
A wildlife biologist in Anchorage, Brad, says that he shares most of his sightings. “The value of accessible wildlife is huge. Getting more people who enjoy wildlife is a good thing. I don’t like what I see sometimes, but the disturbance of one animal could help protect habitat for thousands, when there is appreciation for nature.”
Likewise, Jennifer Melroy, a frequent visitor to Brooks Falls in Katmai and the founder of the blog National Park Obsessed, says, “Personally, if you are sharing the images in a public place, you better be ready to share the details. To not share is gatekeeping at its finest. Gatekeeping is an egotistical elitist concept meant to make the people sharing feel special because they hike this trail or they know where this animal hangs out. It’s not welcoming and doesn’t help foster a love of the outdoors in people who are newer to the outdoors.” Jennifer goes on to say that a positive experience will increase the desire to protect these wild places.
Rob, a resident of Anchorage, chooses not to share locations, but admitted he appreciated Brad’s take and might reconsider. “In general, I do not share locations. Not because I want to keep them to myself but because I see what happens when the word goes out and everyone flocks to the spot. When I do share, it is with someone whose ethics and behavior around wildlife I know and trust. So far though, I have been very reluctant to be the guy responsible for sending the crowd to a spot where an animal is doing its thing in peace,” Rob posts. “I have no problem helping people learn where to find moose, sheep, and birds by sharing knowledge of preferred habitat and food sources. I do not share things like there is a cow with a newborn calf at _______ or there is a nesting owl at _______.”
Lorelei laments the fact that pro photographers cherish exclusivity and rarely share locations. “I made the mistake of asking [about] a certain animal in the wild, and the response I got was really lame, basically they didn’t share info at all. I could imagine that sharing a wildlife location is like sharing your favorite fishing, or berry-picking spot. They’re so protective.”
Does one person’s desire to get the perfect photograph of a grizzly mean more than another’s longing to check a bucket-list box or to post a selfie? At what point is the animal in jeopardy or is a person in danger? Who’s to say when an experience has been ruined? Beyond wildlife officials, in that moment when people congregate, who decides?
Toni, a member of the Alaska Wildlife Facebook group says, “The worst thing is seeing [people] crowding an animal (usually a moose and calf), taking pics and not realizing that if she feels trapped, she will charge. Happens on Glenn Highway a lot.”
Jennifer says she shoots with a 500m-800m lens to create distance. “From the wildlife photographer’s angle, there are the good and the bad. There are people who just don’t care. They want their photo, and rules don’t matter. Wildlife photographers who ignore the rules are a bigger problem than birders and visiting tourists because they should know better and be setting the gold standard for behavior around wildlife, and they don’t. So, visiting tourists wonder why they can’t do the same since the professional is doing it.”
As for rangers, park officials, and city wildlife departments, the challenge of managing human-wildlife conflicts remains difficult at best—and the topic warrants dedicated pages of its own. Land development and climate change impacts have shrunk natural habitat, forcing animals to share space with humans. And humans are increasing their forays into national parks and other refuges, especially during the pandemic. Yellowstone is a perfect example of a park in shambles. Because of a few uneducated or selfish bad actors, rangers in Yellowstone scarcely allow all but the first few cars or hikers who see a roadside buffalo or bear to enjoy it—before feverishly waving along slow vehicles for tying up traffic or cordoning off pedestrians. You’re more apt to see the bumper in front of you than a critter, and you can forget pulling off on the shoulder to get out a tripod or camera.
The one thing most wildlife aficionados can agree on is that education is key. Jennifer weighed in with this: “My personal philosophy for wildlife viewing is to keep your distance. Follow the rules and regulations. Stay safe. Above all else, if the animal changes its behavior, you are too close, so back up.”
Kim, another member of the Alaska Wildlife Facebook group says, “It’s all about ethics. It doesn’t matter if you’re a photographer, birder, tourist, or a general outdoor enthusiast. You have to respect the fact that wildlife is wild and unpredictable. For the safety of humans and the wildlife, you should be educated and respectful. Don’t feed wildlife. A fed bear is a dead bear. That can be said about all wildlife. Keep a safe distance. All of this information is available in print, on the internet, and throughout all forms of media.”
It’s helpful to bear in mind the motivations of the viewers and the excitement of the moment. No one likes to be reprimanded, and even a gentle reminder regarding wildlife ethics may be met with hostility. At the end of the day, we must co-exist, even when the only thing uniting us is the beauty of the beast before us, tolerating our presence for the exact amount of time we are able to remain respectful of it and each other.