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Additional Hitchhiker

Animal Viewing Distances in GTNP

Rules and Distances for Viewing Animals in Grand Teton National Park.
Whether you are a tourist or a photographer, this information might help you while in the park. A few years ago, GTNP updated their wildlife viewing rules with this information:

Additional Hitchhiker

Additional Hitchhiker

The compendium now states, “The following activities are prohibited:
a)   Willfully approaching, remaining, viewing, or engaging in any activity within 100 yards of bears or wolves, or within 25 yards of any other wildlife including nesting birds; or within any distance that disturbs, displaces or otherwise interferes with the free unimpeded movement of wildlife, or creates or contributes to a potentially hazardous condition or situation.
b)   Failure to remove one’s self to prescribed distances during inadvertent, accidental, casual or surprise encounters with wildlife.
c)   Failure to comply as directed by NPS staff (employees, volunteers, or agents) engaged in administering wildlife management operations or managing wildlife viewing opportunities.”

The link in bold type will take you to the official site if you would like to view more official rules and guidelines.

In an earlier post, I mentioned rules were made to be broken. At the time, I was talking about design and composition rules. The rules above are an altogether different issue. Failure to follow them could be costly or even deadly! There is no need for me to go into much more detail as they are fairly clear.

But, during my experiences in the park, it is also clear that many people really have no idea what 25 yards or 100 yards really looks like! 100 yards is a long way, and 25 yards is still pretty far. Right? For anyone interested, I’d suggest a quick trip to a nearby high school or American Legion baseball diamond. Stand on home plate. The distance to the pitcher’s mound is 60 feet, 6 inches. The distance to second base is roughly 120 feet. And, the distance from home plate to first base is 90 feet. Divide foot measurements by three to get yardage. So, it is roughly 20 yards to the pitcher’s mound, 40 yards to second base, or 30 yards to first base. Most high school fields are around 300 feet from home plate to either of the two foul posts…or roughly 100 yards. Likewise, the distance from the goal line to the other goal line on a football field is 100 yards.

100 yards to a bear or wolf actually does seem like a long ways to me. 25 yards from a bull bison, especially without a vehicle nearby seems way, way too close. They can outrun most horses and can be extremely unpredictable! At the same time, the letter of the law would require you to move back to 25 yards if a chipmonk or ground squirrel entered an area where you were having a picnic—or even a gray jay that swoops in to steal a chip.

I don’t spend a lot of my time around the bears and all of the bear jams, but that’s probably the animal that causes the park service the most problems. Jams build quickly, leaving little room to move, even if you are in your vehicle and outside the 100 yard distance. But, it is evident many people don’t understand they aren’t even allowed to stop, roll down their window, and take a few shots out the window in GTNP if within 100 yards of a bear or wolf. In the old days, you could shoot out the window, but not anymore. Not legally anyway. The park service posts speed limit signs and enforces them, but they don’t post this information on signs in a similar fashion. There are days, especially early in the year when there are few visitors, the rangers are more lenient. The rules are the same all year, but you need to follow whatever the ranger is telling the group. Rule C in the updated rules requires you to comply with requests or demands of any park employee, volunteer, or agent. So, even if you are outside the legal viewing area and they ask you to move back, you simply have to do it.

A few years ago, I broke down and purchased a “rangefinder” from B&H while they were on sale. I see quite a few photographers with them now. With a rangefinder, you can accurately determine the distance between yourself and any object large enough to register in the crosshairs. Golfers and hunters use them to judge distances. Mine looks a lot like THIS on the B&H site. It seems like I paid around $140, but it might have been a close-out item to make room for the newer models. I usually have my rangefinder around my neck when I am away from the truck and trying to find animals. It’s nice to know—and not guess—how far I am from an animal. Still, it always helped me to know the distance from home plate to first base. At 30 yards, I was always well outside the legal limit and probably closer than I really needed to be to get good shots of a moose.

Typically, I find myself stopping at about 40-45 yards when getting close to a bull moose. It just feels right. That’s 10-15 yards past the distance from home plate to first base! Currently, I am using either a Nikon D4 or a Nikon D800 camera body, paired with a 200-400mm VR lens. With that combo, I can get close to full frame shots of a bull moose at 43 yards. Why get closer? (Yes, I’ve been closer) At 200 mm, I can include some nice background. Sometimes 43 yards is closer then I want to be, just to get more scenery in the shot. In previous years, I used a Nikon D300 (DX- 1.5 crop factor) paired up with a 70-200mm lens. That setup was a lot lighter, but overall, it covered much of the same range I liked for the moose and large mammals. Nikon recently released a new version of their Nikon_80-400mm_f/4_5_5_6g_ed_vr. at a price of $2,695, probably the perfect lens for much of GTNP. I’ll keep my 200-400mm, but I hear good reviews on the new lens. At 100 yards, it might come up a little short for most bear and wolf photography if you follow the rules.

I chose not to include photos of tourists and photographers too close to animals for this blog post. I have quite a few of them, but there is no need to embarrass anyone. More often than not, the ones in the photos are point-and-shoot tourists trying to get portrait shots. I have to admit is it easy to get caught up in “buck fever” in the heat of the moment and lose some of the normal good senses and awareness. The “long lens” professional photographers are usually way back because they left the truck with a 500mm or 600mm lens and simply can’t get that close and still get shots they’d want to keep.

No one wants a ticket, or even a warning from a ranger, and no one wants to get hurt while in the park. It helps to know the updated rules and have a real world idea of distances in the field.

About the Photo: Additional Hitchhiker
Sept. 24, 2010: Nikon D300 with a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a tripod: ISO 200, F/8, 1/200th second

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