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The 100 Yard Rule(s)

In Grand Teton National Park, you must stay at least 100 yards from a bear or a wolf! And, you cannot stop and shoot out your vehicle window while within 100 yards!

Inside 100 yards, you cannot stand on your seat and take photos from a sun roof—never mind standing on a roof rack or in the back of a pickup. The way the law reads, and the way the park is enforcing the law, if a wolf or bear walks or grazes towards your vehicle, even if you were outside 100 yards originally, you must move your vehicle back if it gets within the 100 zone.

Please Note: Other than one paragraph talking about making this information known to visitors, this page is not intended on being critical of the Park, but instead is presented so you might know the Park rules before you get into trouble!

Bear AttackBefore reading any further down this page, you should watch this clip on YouTube called: Grizzly Bear Wake Up – Craighead Brothers Trying to Tag Semi-Conscious Bear. The Craighead Brothers might be lucky the bear was still groggy! The clip will set the stage for all that follows on this post!

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If you see a bear while driving through GTNP, you are allowed to drive by to get to your destination, even though the rule would technically prohibit you from getting closer than 100 yards. On the Moose/Wilson Road, a single bear could effectively close the road for an indefinite period of time if it grazed on Black Hawthorne berries for several hours. Allowing people to at least drive on by keeps the road open. Again, you can’t stop and you definitely can’t get out without exposing yourself to a ticket. (The image above was taken in 2007 with a 200-400 mm lens on a DX body. It was uncropped. The Grizzly filled the entire frame. At the time I took that photo, the Park Rangers were nearby and supervising the bear jam. I was out of the car and shooting with the aid of a tripod—just like the other 50 or more photographers and tourists).

The Park Service is not doing a great job of letting people know this distance rule. The rule is in the newsletter handout, but that assumes the tourists pick them up and assumes they read any of it. It is also possible to enter the Park through Moose and head south on the Moose/Wilson Road without ever having gone through a gate or station, then drive right into bear central. I think they need to follow Yellowstone’s lead and hand out a florescent yellow sheet with the rule in bold type, and I think they need a reasonably large sign at all entrances. They put up speed limit signs to let you know how fast you can drive, but do little to let people know the distance rules. Likewise, I find many people driving along the Gros Ventre Road don’t even know they are in the Park. After all, they didn’t go through a gate or pay station. Bears have been seen along Gros Ventre Road on numerous occasions over the past few years.

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Remember that TV commercial with the headline, “This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile”?  Well, this is not the same park you might have remembered from previous years! (The photo above was from 2005 and I blurred the faces). The rules officially changed a couple of years ago, but strict enforcement of the letter of law has only been going on for a relatively short period of time. I don’t know how many, but I know the Park rangers are handing out tickets now.  They are not just warning people anymore. Below is the rule copied from GTNP’s compendium:

GTNP COMPENDIUM UPDATE:

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.”

I wrote this post almost a year ago, but that was before the strict enforcement.  Animal Viewing Distances in GTNP

Bridger-Teton National Forest 100 Yard Rule:

GrizzlySowCubPair1_Sept15Bridger-Teton National Forest recently adopted new laws requiring people to be at least 100 yards from a bear. This affects the road over Togwotee Pass from Moran Junction to Dubois.

Related Story in JH New & Guide: B-T Bans Tells People to Give Bears 100 Yards.

Currently, I don’t have the exact wording, but will try to post it when I locate it. According to the article, the Forest Service will allow people to drive by and even park alongside the road as long as they stay in the vehicles. As I was quoted in the article, I don’t have a problem with that option. I took this photo from my vehicle last October during the Government Shutdown. I was comfortably safe in my vehicle with four or five other people pulled over. Some came and went, but there was never a large GTNP or YS style bear jam. I’d expect even less bear watchers along the highway during a year without a Government Shutdown, but if photographer flee from the rules in GTNP, it is possible to see more of them outside the park looking for Grizzlies. With increased Grizzly activity in the area, the Forest Service also changed a rule in the Turpin Meadows campground requiring hard sided campers.

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The GTNP “25 Yard Rule”:

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The GTNP compendium also states people need to stay 25 yards from other animals. Bison might be the most dangerous animal in the park, yet I’ve seen many people treat them as they might a dairy cow. Besides being dangerous, powerful, and unpredictable, they are very fast runners! This cycle driver drove close to the bull so the rider could get a quick photo. I was set up quite a ways off with my telephoto lens thinking my images might end up on the evening news! Around here, these kind of people are called “Tourons”. Moose and elk can also be dangerous and unpredictable.

The Variables: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.This one is trickier! It is not cut and dry like the actual yardage rules. In earlier days, many people would see a bear or wolf trying to cross the road. Some people would anticipate where they wanted to go and drive their vehicle to the spot and park. If two or three people moved to their crossing point, they’d have to walk parallel with the road attempting to find an opening, but were never guaranteed an open spot in which to pass. The 100 yard rule more or less eliminates that issue for the bears and wolves, but animals like pronghorns and bison may have to modify their movements to get around  people and vehicles. I could easily be accused of this very thing at some time over the years and I know how tempting it can be to advance the vehicle to get the approaching and crossing shots. You’ll just want to be aware of the rule and adjust accordingly.

The Other Variable: Failure to comply as directed by NPS staff (employees, volunteers, or agents) engaged in administering wildlife management operations or managing wildlife viewing opportunities.” I don’t particularly like this part of the law, but I have to obey it! I don’t mind a Law Enforcement Officer telling me to move back for whatever reason, yet the law also lists employees, volunteers, and agents. I’ve been around a scene where a volunteer tells me or a group of people to move back, even though we were well outside the legal distance. I am sure some of them don’t know how far 25 yards is, but once they say it, we have to follow their directions. I hear failure to follow their directions is a much bigger offense then simply being too close.

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Relative Distances:

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100 Yards at 400mm FX (16.6 mpx): This is a full frame image I took of myself standing at one goal line and triggering my camera set up at the goal line 100 yards away. (Click on it to see it at 1200 pixels wide.)   This was taken with a Nikon D4 and a 200-400 mm lens at 400mm.

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100 Yards at 400mm with DX Crop. With a DX crop lens or if the FX camera was set to DX mode, I’d fill a larger area of the image. This is a 3200 x 2128 pixel crop of the original 4928 x 3280 pixel image. If using a 1.4 Teleconverter on a 400mm lens, I’d end up with an image in which I filled about the same area. With a 600 mm lens I’d fill the frame a little more. You can probably visualize the size of a bear or wolf relative to the full area of an image. Click this image to see it a 1200 pixels wide.

Distance Comments: You can do a similar test with your equipment, but taking the time to do my test lets me see about how large a bear might be at the optimum 100 yards. Unless you or the rangers have a rangefinder, you could be a few yards closer or 20-30 yards farther away. Most are not great at estimating this distance in the field. The 25 yard distance is much easier for me to estimate. I played baseball when I was in high school and college and I helped coach one of my sons. The distance from home plate to first base is 90 feet, or 30 yards. The distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound is 60′-6″, or just over 20 yards.  In the field, I typically find myself comfortable setting my tripod down at around 40 yards from a bull moose for photography in he range of 200-mm to 400mm. When I was shooting with a Nikon D300, a DX body, I felt about right using a 70-200mm lens. So, as you can see in the FX image at 400mm and no Teleconverter, I am farther away than I’d prefer. Unless I spent the money for a 600mm lens for bears, I tell myself “why bother”. The other option for me would be to use my Nikon D800 in DX crop mode, knowing it starts out at 35 mpx and still makes a reasonably large DX file.

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Comments (7)

  1. Ron Case

    Thanks Mike. This is another helpful and useful post. I really appreciate your blog and all of the fantastic information you have been very generous to share with us.

  2. Hi Mike, good info. I think it might be handy to start carrying a range finder in our camera bags.

  3. Thanks Mike for the information. The hard and fast rule is very hard to manage but it’s only my job to follow it. Thanks so much for doing the yardage comparisons. I have always said I was going to do that, now I don’t have to. Your great! As always, I enjoy your photography, see you in a month or so. Happy shooting!

  4. Hi Tim,
    I purchased a Rangefinder several years ago and carry it with me when there are animals around. I think it was a good investment!

  5. There may be times when a ranger is allowing people to be closer, but I wouldn’t do it unless they were there and defining the distances for people. If they drive up to you sitting in your car within 50 yards and you are holding a long lens out the window, there is a good chance you’ll have to deal with the ranger in some form or another. I’d rather not take the chance.

  6. Lowell Schechter

    Mike, great article keeping a safe distance from the wildlife in Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. When you are in these wonderful places you know you are not at the local zoo. I think I might have been a bit to close to a Bison in Yellowstone, but I realized that quickly and backed off and was able to get good photos with the lens I had. As you say , you must have respect for these animals or they will pose a threat you. I think we were in the Lamar valley and most of the Bisons were grazing in the valley and then suddenly they started to come up on to the road. I knew then it was time to leave but some people were in there vehicles for quite a while until the Bisons moved on. the Rangers for the most part were doing there jobs but there are people taking too many chances to get a good photo.

  7. Hi Lowell,
    Just for the record, I am not criticizing the Park Service for enforcing the law. It was getting crazy and the bears were getting “pinched” when they were along the road. My goal with this post was simply to advise people of the changes in enforcement this year over some of the previous years. When I am out and talking with lots of the people, very few of them are aware of the fact they can’t legally shoot from inside their vehicle when under 100 yards. This post is not at all about whether I agree with the law, but was merely an attempt to help people understand it.

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