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Cinnamon Bears

The Moose-Wilson Road and Black Bears – My Experiences

The Moose-Wilson Road and Logistics

Moose, Deer, Beavers, Great Gray  and Great Horned Owls, Great Blue Herons, Sandhill Cranes, Weasels, Pine Martens, and no telling how many other species of animals share the unique, picturesque zone running south out of the Moose Visitors Center area towards Teton Village. In the late summer and early fall, Black Bears and Grizzlies show up to feast on the Black Hawthorn Berries.

Cubs in Tree Top

The Moose-Wilson Road is narrow throughout and winding for most of it. Blind curves and hills seem almost reminiscent of a big kids amusement park ride. Tourists gawking at the scenery and speeders can make it feel at least a little dangerous. There are precious few legitimate pull-outs for tourists and photographers. A two mile section of the road (a mile either direction of Lake Creek) is signed at each end advising tourists not to park along the roadway. Access to that area is normally limited to tourists parking in one of the 50 spaces at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve with trail access to Phelps Lake and Lake Creek. Several miles of the south end of the road is gravel and often rough. The Granite Canyon trail head is located at the south end and the Death Canyon trail head is at the end of a spur near the middle. Moose-Wilson road is normally open in the winter to the road up to the Death Canyon trail head. Vehicles with trailers and large mobile homes are prohibited on the road. Click Here to see a satellite view of the road.

Signs of Bear

The Moose-Wilson Road has been under study for years. A new (and final?) plan is due out at any time. Only park officials seem to know the direction they will go for the road. You can read a lot more about the road plans at JH New & Guide: Moose-Wilson Road use dissected

On the Way Down

Even with all of limitations, the Moose-Wilson road is heavily traveled. Much of the road is limited to 25 miles per hour—and that is really way too fast for some of the hilly and winding areas. Many area residents use the road as a thoroughfare to and from the airport or areas north. They are not park visitors and often display no patience for drivers, animals, or people on foot or bikes. Even without bear activity, the road is dangerous. Throw in the fall Black Bears, and the issues compound. A single Black Bear can snarl traffic in both directions for long periods of time. Rangers and Wildlife Management personnel are usually required to break up the jams, with people stopping and leaving their vehicles either half on or fully on the roadway.

Cinnamon Black Bear

Faux Bear Jams can happen anytime someone pulls over to take photos of the aspen trunks or landscapes. Within minutes, 20 cars can be stopped and 30 people traipsing out to take shots beside you until they learn of the actual subjects. A real “bear jam” can develop in a matter of a few minutes. I am always amazed! There’s no one at first, then 40 vehicles and then a hundred.

Cinnamon Bears

Teton Park Regulations require people to stay back 100 yards from a black bear or grizzly. Some GTNP visitors enter the road through a gate near Teton Village. They are required to pay Park Fees during normal hours. If so, they are handed a map and newsletter with the animal viewing rules. Tourists entering from Moose never go through an entrance station and are never supplied with park information and rules.

Black Bear Crossing the Creek

As recently as yesterday, I was telling a man we were supposed to be back at 100 yards in Grand Teton National Park. He proceeded to tell me we weren’t in GTNP…we were “in the National Forest and not controlled by GTNP rules”. Let’s just say he was certain he was right and I was certain he wasn’t. Nothing I could say would convince him otherwise. I suggested looking at a Park map and I suggested that he drive a few miles south,  go out the gate and then reenter to see what the signs say. He walked off grumbling to himself, still sure he was right. After living here close to 30 years, I was certain I was right. Still am! I’d like to be a fly on the wall when he looks at a map to see he was wrong. I add this information to this page to illustrate how that section of the Park is so poorly signed and how a few signs letting people know the distance viewing rules could at least help fix a glaring problem. FYI, the Bridger-Teton National Forest DOES have Grizzly Bear Viewing Distance Regulations.

Black Bear

Most of the “photographers” I know have a healthy respect for the bears. When left unattended, most stay back and get their shots using their telephoto lenses—purchased specifically for the scenario. Not so for many of tourists! When left unattended, some get much too close. That grouping lacks the “healthy respect” for the wild animals. They don’t like it when the area photographers finally speak up and ask them to back up. Sometimes, it can get down right ugly.

Cinnamon Cub

My Experiences with the Bears

Black Bear atop Berry Bush

To be honest, I can only take so much of the roadside bear watching at any one time. Over the years, I’ve stayed away from it on purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I love photographing the Black Bears! However, to get the shots, I have to go there and deal with the tight quarters, limited parking, and distance issues. As with any subject, some days are better than others. It might take dozens of bear jams to get just a few clean shots. Sometimes, I don’t take a single image.

Black Bear

During “berry season”, I feel magnetically pulled to the Moose-Wilson Road—if nothing more than to just to check it out. It is equally difficult to want to leave the area if there is sufficient activity. I have a blog entry to write every day, you know! When I am at home in front of the computer, I am thinking about all of the opportunities I am (or could be) missing. Bears can be active at about any time of the day, and that fact can torment any dedicated photographer if they aren’t there. Conversely, when I am there and nothing seems to be happening, I am thinking about all of the things I need to be doing. It’s a no win situation at best.

Cinnamon Bears

The Rangers, the Volunteers, and the Rules

I wrote The 100 Yard Rule(s) not long after the Park Service implemented their current animal viewing distance rules:

GTNP COMPENDIUM UPDATE:

The compendium 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.”

From a “letter of the law” aspect, my original post was probably dead-on. I was worried about getting a citation if I got out of my vehicle with a bear closer than 100 yards, while tourists were walking up to what I considered was way too close. A hundred yards is the distance from one goal line to the other goal line on a football field. That’s a long ways! If taken literally, it would be illegal to drive down the Moose-Wilson Road at almost any time during berry season because there would almost always be at least one bear somewhere within 20 yards of the road. You can’t approach a bear within 100 yards—even while still in your vehicle! Read the rules!

The Easier Route

The road needs to be open. Visitors need/want to be able to drive down it and see the wildlife along it. People need to give them a reasonable amount of room to feed go about their fall bear business. No one wants to see a bear get hit by a speeding vehicle and no one wants to see a bear get put down because of any kind of human confrontation.

Black Bear in Low Grasses

Grand Teton National Park has a unique group of volunteers that each work several days a week for free. They are part of the Wildlife Management Program, sometimes called the Bear Brigade. At least from my observations, it’s a tough, thankless job. They save the government a lot of money and they help ensure the safety of the animals, plus help break up the many bear jams. We are required to follow their orders, even if we don’t agree with them. Most are fair, but firm. The Law Enforcement Officers (LE) carry the badges, guns, bullet proof vests, and ticket books. They assist the volunteers and back them up if needed.

Moose-Wilson Road

Enforcement of the 100 yard rule along the Moose-Wilson Road has been spotty, based on my relatively limited experience this year. The 100 yard rule seems to be a “tool” to help control the crowds when needed. Your experience may vary and they may have a staff meeting and go back to strict enforcement someday. I’d hate to see that happen, of course.

Black Bear Crossing Marsh

Earlier, I mentioned the two mile no parking zone of the Moose-Wilson Road. The Park Service put up a single sign at the north end for southbound visitors and one at the south end for northbound visitors, but neither have signs indicating when it okay to start parking along the roadway again. There are no other signs in between and really no way of knowing how far you’ve traveled. A few more signs would help if they didn’t want people parking along the road in that section. Over the past 10 days or so, I haven’t seen nor heard of anyone being asked to move on while a bear is visible.

Delicate Dining

Comments on Standing Along the Moose-Wilson Road

Here are a few things you might want to consider:

  • Park completely off the road! If any part of the wheels are on the asphalt road surface, you will eventually be asked to move the vehicle.
  • Of course, don’t park on the road and leave it.
  • Authorities prefer people not stand ON the road, including tripod legs. Some areas make that impossible.
  • Be patient while driving. Allow some extra time in your schedule for delays and jams. Drive defensively.
  • If you have a pickup style vehicle, you can’t have an exposed cooler. It must be stored inside the cab.
  • Don’t carry around food outside the cab of the vehicle, and of course, never feed any bear.
  • Dogs must be kept inside the vehicles when around the bears
  • Carry Bear Spray when out of the vehicle.
  • Follow the orders of the Wildlife Management volunteer and Rangers.
  • Make sure not to step, or set up, in front of another photographer.

Web_BlackBearSawmillCrossing_Aug23

Photography Comments for Bears

Here are a few things you might want to consider:

  • First, buy a long lens! It will reduce the urge to get close. Both Sigma and Tamron sell affordable 150-600mm lenses. Nikon is coming out with a new 200-500mm lens around the middle of September.
  • Black Bears photograph better on cloudy days. The black ones are tougher than the cinnamon colored bears.
  • Black Bears don’t move fast too often. Shutter speed might not be as important as some subjects, but keep in mind the “one over” rule. 600mm=1/600th second, 400mm=1/400th second, 200mm=1/200th second and so forth. This varies some based on whether people are using a tripod or have a lens with some sort of vibration reduction.
  • The bears are often behind a few stray branches, leaves, or blades of grass that can cause problems with the multi-point focusing options. I get my best results on a feeding bear when using single point focus. I put the focus point on the bear’s eye and lock it with the shutter button pressed half way down, use the AF Lock on the back of the camera, toggle the focus point to the Bear’s eye, or set my camera to “back button focus”. I’ve found the 9 or 21 point focus (and I suspect the Group Area focus feature on some of the newer Nikons) will grab a branch in front of them. When they are walking, I just have to take my chances, shoot a lot and hope for a clean image. Here’s a YouTube tutorial if you are not familiar with the feature: Back Button Focus : Steve Perry on YouTube.
  • Black Bears are often active very early and very late, and of course, during the day! Early and late mean balancing shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to tolerable levels. Often, high ISO shots are required, so better cameras are helpful. During the bright sun periods of the day, leaves will be “glossy” and the bear’s dark fur will make photography tougher. RAW captures and some healthy post processing can help. Once the light gets too bright, I tend to stop shooting, but if the action is good, I take the photos and deal with them later.
  • Beware of “buck fever”. That’s a common hunting term in which an otherwise law abiding person loses most of their senses during the heat of the chase (or hunt).  They will do some  stupid things they wouldn’t normally do. That could include you, me, and any of the hundreds of people trying to get a photo or a good view of a bear. Given time to think about it, some people might not get that close, leave their car on the road with the door open, or forget they have a cooler full of food exposed.

Cinnamon Sow On Buck Rail

Images on this page were all shot with a Tamron 150-600mm lens with either a Nikon D4 or Nikon D810 body. Most were shot at 600mm and most have some cropping.

Buck Rail Seat

Many of the photos on this page were taken with a Wildlife Management volunteer or Ranger nearby.

Standing Black Bear

Black Bear in the Forest

Late evening shots like the one above require the bear to be fairly still, with the aperture wide open, and with a very high ISO setting. I could soften the grain in the background, but I’d probably opt to use a different photo if someone was interested in a Black Bear image.

Black Bear Cubs

Typically, bears eat the low berries first, then begin climbing into the Hawthorn trees to reach new zones. You have to be persistent and lucky to get some of the shots.

Road Closures

Moose-Wilson Closure

As I am ready to submit this post, the Moose-Wilson Road is closed due to bear activity. It has been closed on numerous occasions over the past few years, but those closures were due specifically to Grizzly Bear activity in the area. Grizzly Bear closures are normally left in place for at least 72 hours past the last sighting. Grizzlies could feed on the berries for a week or longer before leaving. Other Grizzlies can take their place, so when one appears, no one could possibly predict how long the roadway might be closed.

As a tour permit holder, I just received this notice:

Moose-Wilson Road Temporarily Closed to Protect Bears

MOOSE, WY — Grand Teton National Park managers have initiated a temporary closure of the Moose-Wilson Road from the Murie Ranch Road Junction to the Granite Canyon Trailhead to protect numerous black bears that are feeding on hawthorn berries along the road. Managers will monitor the situation continuously and will re-open the road when conditions allow. Park visitors should call 307.739.3682 or visit www.nps.gov/grte and click on the “alerts” tab for updated information.” (Sept. 9, 2015)

This notice does not include information about Grizzlies, so there is a possibility the road could open again sooner than following a Grizzly Bear closure?

Cinnamon Bear and Hawthorne Berries

There are plenty of Black Hawthorn berries along the roadway this year. I hear some of the berry crops, like Huckleberries and Choke Cherries were much less than normal this year. I haven’t heard much about the White Bark Pine cones. Whatever the case, the Moose-Wilson Road corridor is attracting a lot of Black Bears, stretching park resources to its limits. Throw in the fact that Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks are experiencing record numbers, and it’s easy to understand how the area and workers are under stress.

Bear Management

With the closure of the Moose-Wilson Road, you might want to look over this page: Outside the Park: Alternative Places to Visit, Hike, Fish, and Photograph. It might give you a few options for places in the region worth visiting. The Moose-Wilson Road is an important artery in GTNP, and it includes access to the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. While it’s closed, there are many additional areas of the Park you can visit. This site is loaded with tips and suggestions. Check out:  Best of the Tetons : Start Here!

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Comments (11)

  1. Excellent post Mike. As much as I like seeing, and photographing the bears, I would rather they were safe. They need to get fat and healthy for the upcoming winter.

  2. I love driving through Moose Wilson Road! This is a terrific post and couldn’t be more timely for me. Of course moose are always on my list of critters to photograph when I’m there but I consider photographing bears a special treat and have been lucky a few times on MWR. Last year, it was closed the day I got there and opened the day before I left. Of course, I went there right after a ranger told me it was open but not a bear was to be seen. I hope it opens again prior to my arrival in a few days. I’m ready with my Tamron 150-600 but perhaps I should get a range finder too…….. BTW, I’m no longer just a fan of your moose and bird shots but your black bear shots …….. well, they’re terrific too. Thanks Mike!

  3. Bill, we all hope the road will be open for everyone to enjoy. It’s a treat to get to see them and photograph them, but as you mention, the park has so much to offer. There were simply more bears than people to patrol and control the area, and without supervision, some of the people lack any sort of self control or respect for the animals.

  4. Wonderful post Mike! Thanks for sharing all your information and stories! I love the term “buck fever”. I try not to catch it, but unfortunately, have caught myself in rare situations. Since I also have a blog, I can really relate to trying to balance time on computer and time shooting. Such a vicious circle! You do both so well!

  5. Merriam-Webster:
    Definition of BUCK FEVER : nervous excitement of an inexperienced hunter at the sight of game.

    We’ve all be there!

  6. Gary Otto

    Great information on focal points. And as always your images are off the charts while converging a long side your posts. Stay safe out there buddy.

  7. So true! Two years ago along MWR, I thought I was going to have to use my bear spray for the very first time. A person got to within about 25 to 30 yards of a black bear that was eating berries. Turned his back on it. Gave his point and shoot camera to another person to take his picture with the bear in the background. Lucky for him & the bear that it was more interested in eating the berries. While I had my bear spray in hand, I was so glad nothing happened and wished a Law Enforcement Officer had come by. Some people are just so……… you know! Hope to see you in some of the old spots!

  8. Mike, not only are you a great photographer, writer, and teacher, you also have a great concern for wildlife. You have made a wonderful case for why the park closes Moose Wilson Road and have reached out to rude tourists to try to help them understand the dilemma of the park rangers and volunteers. I hope the road opens soon but I leave it up the rangers to make that decision.

  9. Brad Ipock

    After being there this weekend, I can’t say I’m surprised. I got caught for 2 hours between the Moose junction and the LWR trying to get off MW road. At anytime, there were several bears feeding, having counted 4 different bears in 4 different areas at one time. At one point, there were about 20 people standing by a bear only about 15 feet from them. People lost all common sense – both those out of their vehicles and those in there vehicles. People running up and down the road, drivers yelling and honking horns at other drivers, so on. It is quite unfortunate and I hope it reopens this weekend so my dad can see it, but based on what I saw this weekend, I would think the park service would really have to consider the safety not only of the bears, but of their employees and volunteers too. I certainly understand the draw of bears being from eastern NC and having had the opportunity to see them regularly. But we all must remember a stressed bear can be forced into a situation that will not end in a good result for either the human or the bear. And, as a side note, while this was mainly a “tourist” incident, photographers weren’t helping the issue and helping enforce the rules. We have to police ourselves sometimes.

  10. Brad, I used the phrase “most photographers have a healthy respect for the bears”. There will always be a few that give the rest a bad name, and as I mentioned, even the ones with the best intentions sometimes get caught up in the moment and push boundaries. Most of us have done it at some point. As far as photographers policing other people, it gets messy. Most of us that have done it have had occasions where the people tell us to stick it, complete with insults and threats. I asked one of the senior rangers how they wanted us to handle it. Generally, they prefer us to stay out of it and let them do their job unless there is an immediate threat to the animal or person. It’s complicated! Thanks for your comments and observations! MJ

  11. Sheila

    Good Evening Mike;
    You have some awesome photos of all the bears; really cool. LeeAnn just referred me to your site; but we met you in Spring up on MW where hopefully you got the good shot of the Great Grey and prey. Sheila Thanks again, so much fun looking thru these and perhaps I’ll run into you next week or so up there.

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