This summer Jeff Willemain, GTNPF board member, and his wife, Chris, volunteered on Grand Teton’s Wildlife Brigade, a Foundation-funded volunteer program. Tasked with facilitating safe interactions between visitors and animals, Grand Teton’s Wildlife Brigade members are a valuable group of volunteers. They manage roadside “wildlife jams,” patrol picnic areas for unsecured food, and share educational information with visitors. Jeff recently shared a story with us from a memorable day volunteering for the Wildlife Brigade.
It’s a warm, clear, blue sky day on Moose Wilson Road. The berries are ripe and there seem to be bears just about everywhere. They hide in bushes and trees and make grand appearances on tree branches or the side of the road. This day has been a hustle, bouncing from one end of the road to the other. As bears and moose appear, people stop their cars to observe these wild creatures.
At the moment, I am standing on the side of the road trying to spot a bear cub which someone says has reappeared in the trees. There are about thirty people who have parked, walked alongside the road, and are curious about rumors of an earlier sighting. I hear sounds that are clearly from more than one animal, but I can’t see anything yet. I can tell they have descended from the trees and are very close. It’s important that we respect their space and be safe. We work to create an appropriate distance and people are helpful and move to a safe viewing spot.
I keep the cars moving while I answer questions. Lots of folks seem to think I’m some kind of nature oracle because I wear a uniform, have a radio, and am standing in a national park. Visitors ask all kinds of questions. The temptation to just make up answers when I am clueless is strong, but I resist.
We all hear the cracking of branches, then silence. There is a break in cars streaming by and the road is suddenly and miraculously empty. A bear nose appears and then a head peeks out of the bushes right on the side of the road. We can tell it’s a black bear cub. A car heads towards us, but sees my upraised hand and stops right where it should. Then another car pulls alongside me, a local fellow, who stops and says he’ll spend whatever time is needed for “these bears to do their thing.” I am guessing the bears are going to cross the road and head for water on the other side.
As the bear’s head appears the people behind me gasp and exclaim. For most of them this is their first sighting of a bear. About half of this group is from overseas and they are ecstatic. Their expressions, especially the kids’, are priceless. It reminds me of how I felt when I saw my first bear in the wild.
The cub comes out of the bushes and starts drinking from a puddle on the road. Then a second cub appears and joins the first. This has the feel of a Wild Kingdom episode, only its real and right here, right now. Seconds pass and then we hear the mama bear. She makes a majestic entrance, gets to the middle of the road, and rises up on her hind legs to survey her surroundings. She then drops back down and gently nudges each cub and they complete their crossing. They move quickly across an open space and disappear into the trees 70 yards away.
The cars move, kids jump and chatter, families are thrilled, and I get about 5 hugs, as though I somehow made these bears appear. It just doesn’t get better than this.
This is our first year as volunteers on the Wildlife Brigade and my wife Chris and I get to do this together. While I was dealing with these bears she was handling a moose jam up the road. Working on the Brigade is like practicing an art refined by experience, good judgement, and people skills. Every situation is different depending on the wildlife, the location, the weather, and the crowds. Learning from rangers and veterans on the Brigade is key, and as stimulating and enjoyable as the wildlife experiences. We cannot say enough about the quality and passion of those we work with. They are exceptional people and are a testimony to park leadership, rangers, and our Wildlife Brigade leader Kate Wilmot.
Great people, stunning place, cool wildlife, and witnessing the reactions of people seeing their “first,” makes this opportunity an absolute privilege.
Thank you Chris and Jeff for being a part of the Wildlife Brigade!