Watching Wildlife at National Parks

The further we become separated from the pristine wilderness and beauty, the more pleasure does the mind of enlightened man feel in recurring those senses.

George Catlin

In addition to the details of wildlife viewing in the National Parks today, we want to provide you with some important background history that will help you better appreciate everything you are about to see on your journey.

A Brief History

The United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was born.

During turn of the 20th century, Americans were calling out for the protection of the pristine wilderness and wildlife that abounded in the land of opportunity. With Congress taking the initiative in 1872 to establish Yellowstone as America’s first National Park, more people were getting behind the movement of protecting land for the “enjoyment and wonderment of people.”

Painting from Thomas Moran, known for his contributions to the American conservation movement, illustrating the unique springs located in Yellowstone.

Following the establishment of this park, tourists started to pour in to behold the hot springs, geysers, waterfalls, and wildlife that made Yellowstone a special place on this planet. Businesses, governments, and peoples started to realize they could not only preserve the land, but they could also profit from it after establishing the park boundaries. Yellowstone was an important precedent in the natural progression of park establishment in the United States. People realized if they weren’t careful, they could decimate wildlife populations and disrupt delicate ecosystems that could result in extinction and dire living circumstances.

To this day, park rangers regularly help visitors recreate while minimizing their impact to the ecosystems of National Parks.

Unfortunately, some species, like the Carolina parakeet or the passenger pigeon, were not able to recover from the Western sprawl that so feverishly took place in the United States. The American bison, so typically cited as an example of this sprawl in action, was essentially gone in the wild by the 20th century. But, one herd remained, in none other than Yellowstone National Park. The park rangers took it upon themselves to prevent all poaching in hopes to sustain the species.

Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright, shown here with future president Herbert Hoover in 1928, was involved in the creation of the National Park Service. Later, as agency’s director, he greatly increased the number of parks east of the Mississippi and helped preserve historic sites.

This kind of selfless act gave birth to the conservation movement, heralded by President Theodore Roosevelt. After spending time in what would become the Badlands National Park, the president decided it was important for the American people to not only be able to visit these parks, but to also understand the flora and fauna that existed therein. He saw, firsthand, the disappearance of species as humans slowly moved into the Dakota regions. He knew he wanted to act before any more habitat was destroyed.

Heading to Washington, he took his studies, his observations, and his research, and expanded a number of forest reserves, wildlife preserves, and national parks. Eventually, the National Park system, comprised of hundreds of park s scattered throughout the country, embodying forests, mountains, seashores, oceans, rivers, prairies, and other features, came to be. Once the park battle was complete and the lines were drawn, a lesser-known battle raged on – one that concerned animals.

Understanding American Wildlife

Those first visitors to Yellowstone National Park came for the geology and the scenery. However, it is fabled that they stayed for the wildlife. After noticing the herds of bison slowly depleting in the park, the park management team took some actions to stop poaching. In many cases, park rangers endangered themselves o ensure that the species could not be accessed by poachers. While they worked out the kinks in their system, trying to maneuver around a “ranch-like” process to keep the wild game safe, these park rangers also had to deal with the wild animals that poached on the bison, like mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves. Park biologists tried to intervene and tell Washington rules had to be enacted to prevent the hunting and poaching. As we mentioned above, for some species, it was too late.

While park rangers worked to familiarize themselves with hundreds of thousands of years of wildlife management, they made another grave mistake – they staged bear-feeing events for tourist tickets. Staging these events helped the parks raise money from attendees so they could better protect the boundaries. But, bears with no fear of humans caused a dangerous situation, with many of them clogging roads to go beg next to cars. The Park Service enforced laws prohibiting the feeding of the wildlife.

In the early days of National Park Service management in Yellowstone, bears would be fed at at garbage dumps. Today, bears in the park are wild.

These laws marked the first instance of enacting rules and regulations regarding wildlife viewing in the United States. From these actions, the splendor and enchantment of spotting a wild animal from a distance in National Parks came to be.

In the mid 20th century, the war for the environment roared on, with the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act being enacted. These laws worked together to enhance the wildlife management policies to fewer and fewer animals had to be lost at the expense of human negligence.

Simultaneously, the Wildlife Management Report in National Parks was released in 1963, stressing the importance of not only defending big game, but also defending the smaller, lesser known species. This report still guides wildlife management in the parks today.

What’s the most important concept to take away from that report? It’s that if possible, try and minimize all disturbance in natural habitats when in the park. Meaning, stay on foot trails, respect the signs, and to those reading this today, make sure your selfies aren’t in pristine wilderness.

Today, that’s exactly what every park in the United States will ask you to do. By entering a National Park, you are agreeing to these rules of non-disturbance and interference. The parks are supposed to provide you with clearly marked paths and usable areas. For all of the other areas, special permits need to be filed with the local government. With the Parks System over 104-years old today, this cherished American institution places emphasis on native species, natural conditions, and natural processes (yes, this means that some species will kill/eat other species).

Our National Parks do more than just provide visitors with access to the awe and wonder of our planet; they are also protective entities that are home to more than 270 threatened and endangered species. Additionally, our parks are home to more than ¼ of all species throughout the entire United States.

And, if it weren’t for these systems, that endangered species figure would be much, much higher. In fact, nearly half of them would be extinct.

Wildlife Watching 101

Now it’s time to dive into the actual art of wildlife viewing. Humans have been watching animals since our first time on the planet. It’s an art form that connects us to nature, allowing us to observe all that Mother Nature is capable of producing. There is no better place in the entire world to wildlife view than in our National Parks.

National Parks are a great place to look at animals for a number of reasons:

  • The parks are open to all which means anyone can enjoy the viewing.
  • The animals are generally more tolerant of people.
  • The habitats are natural, which means you are seeing these animals where they actually live and belong.

It is hard to estimate how many people go to these parks to view wildlife. It has been surmised somewhere near 88% of visitors to Grand Teton National Park, 76% of visitors to Voyageurs National Park, and 71% of visitors to the Everglades National Park were there to see animals, according to data from the University of Idaho Visitor Services Project. This same survey found that wildlife viewing ranked as nearly the #1 reason why billions of people will make their descent onto an American National Park.

One of the “fun” or challenging elements of wildlife viewing is that you will never see everything in the parks. Remember there are 4,847 vertebrate species in the national parks, as well as 3,988 in the contiguous 48 states. And, keep in mind, scientists admit this is only a fraction of how many species actually roam these parks – that we have yet to discover.

With so many species, so much mystery, and a safe environment from which you can view wildlife, the National Parks are assuredly calling your name.

Why should you view wildlife?

You’ve already expressed interest in familiarizing yourself with the great outdoors by picking up this guide. But, just in case you need a final push to get out there and enjoy the wildlife outside your doors, here are a few reasons why we believe every person should make it a point in their life:

  • You Will Be Healthier: Countless studies have confirmed spending just 20 minutes outside makes people happier, both physically and mentally. That means simply being outside and watching animals roam near by can raise your spirits and reenergize your body.
  • You Will Understand Nature Better: When one has a personal understanding and experience of nature, they can better advocate for the environment and share their awareness with people around them. There is something about seeing these animals up-close-and-personal to really understand their importance in our world.
  • It’s Something Everyone Can Do: Whether you want your kids to spend less time on their phones, or you want to move and exercise more, going outside and looking at wildlife is an all-consuming activity that will keep even the most agitated of children captivated. There is entertainment beyond our mobile devices, and it’s available for you in the National Parks system.

In the following section, we are going to cover some safety groundwork to ensure you are protecting yourself and your family while pursuing animals in America today. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Staying Safe Near Wildlife

Animals are wild, non-domesticated creatures that respond based on instinct. If they feel like you present a threat to them or their baby, they will attack. It’s not an attack out of pleasure or confusion – it’s an attract to protect themselves and their tribes, herds, packs, etc. That’s why you need to view wildlife responsibly. Far too many people have been injured, or killed, by viewing wildlife without any proper understanding of where to go or what to do. We want to clear that up for you.

Look Up the Park’s Guidelines

Different parks will come with different rules based on the animals contained therein. For example, the Everglades will have specific rules related to alligators, whereas Yellowstone will have rules about moose, Grizzly bears, and falling into geysers (by accident). Therefore, we recommend the rule of ‘know before you go.’ Before you arrive at your park, simply look at their website and view any animal hazards or suggestions. If you plan to camp, you will want to check over leaving food outside, etc.

Pay Attention to the Road

It is actually quite common for car pileups and accidents to occur in parks today. That’s because the driver will catch themselves looking off into the distance at the elk beneath the Rocky Mountains, only to forget they are driving a car. If you are traveling with someone else, take turns switching off driving. Whoever is driving needs to pay attention to the speed limits, as well as any animal jams in the road. Should you come upon wildlife in the road, do NOT honk your horn. You will stress them out and cause them to act irrationally. Go slow and keep your eyes on the road.

Keep Your Distance

Although we all want that perfect picture for Instagram or Facebook, it’s important to realize you could be jeopardizing your life. The best way to stay safe around animals is to maintain a distance of at least 25 yards. If you are dealing with predators, like wolves or bears, maintaining a distance of at least 100 yards is to your benefit. However, if you stick to marked trails and overlook points inside the park, you should not find yourself dealing with this kind of scenario. Consider bringing binoculars if you want to be able to see the animal details up close.

Do Not Disturb Wildlife

If you see an animal sleeping or a baby separated from its mother, do not further disturb the animal. It’s the law. It is illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or disrupt the wildlife while you are in these parks. Plus, if you surprise or scare an animal, they are much more likely to attack you out of defense. Stay on the trails to ensure you are not accidentally surprising any animals.

Store Your Food

Animals have much more sensitivity to smells than we do. If you have a half-eaten cookie in your pocket, they can smell that from 100 yards away. Naturally, they are going to try and figure out where that smell is coming from. Try and eat your meals at designated areas and stash your trash. Do not bring opened food with you out on the trail. If you are camping, you must seal your food in a plastic bag and place it in your vehicle. Grizzlies will come looking for it in the night.

Tell a Ranger

If you see an animal that looks sick, rabid, scared, confused, or abused, please tell a park ranger immediately. They need to be made aware of animals that may be dying and more likely to approach you. If you notice an animal, in broad daylight, walking up to cars in a parking lot, close your door and lock it. They could have rabies.

Put the Phone Down

We have all heard of the horror stories in Yellowstone National Park when tourists back into geysers on their phones and end up dying. Although capturing the moments on your phone is perfectly fine, be sure to put it back in your pocket when you are walking. You need to be aware of your surroundings at all time, as well as aware of where you stepping. You could accidently crush a bird’s nest or kill a baby animal. It is best to be as aware as possible.

Look But Don’t Touch

Even if you find yourself face to face with a cordial animal, like a duck or bunny, please refrain from touching them. They could be carrying a disease if they are that comfortable coming up to you, or they could have their sense of danger altered by having you touch and hold them. You need to keep their habitat as uninterrupted as possible, even if they animal appears to be friendly.

Follow Your Instincts

As humans, we have animalistic instincts, too. That’s why if you are feeling a pang of intuition to move, leave, or say something, then do it. Your instincts are your best way of staying safe if you find yourself in a question animal scenario. That’s why it’s especially important to put the phone down. Staring into your phone will create a barrier between you and the environment.

Be Responsible

Lastly, just be responsible. There is no reason why wildlife viewing needs to be dangerous. If you are responsible, aware of your surroundings, and you follow all labeled rules for the park you are in, there should be no problems. Remember that you are now in the animal’s home, not the other way around. Respect them and their way of life. They will show you respect in return.