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Op-Ed: Glacier National Park's New Wildlife Photography And Viewing Policy Is Unrealistic


Most people enjoy wildlife photography. In fact, the chance to see and maybe photograph wildlife is among the top reasons people go to Glacier National Park. Are you aware that there are new viewing rules in place that may surprise you?

Today, wildlife viewing and wildlife photography may be a bit more challenging based on the stringency of the new rules. The new Glacier National Park Wildlife Viewing Policy states:

“To protect wildlife the following activities are prohibited” 1) 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.” (italics and emphasis added).

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Although I was standing next to one of the most used trails in Glacier National Park (the Hidden Lake Trail) a shot such as the one of these two mountain goats in glacier national park, could be considered in violation of the current wildlife viewing policy. As a side note, there were about 15 other people on the this section of the trail, some going some coming, and some, like me, snapping a few photos for the scrapbook. This trail gets 1000′s of visitor every day and it would not be possible to avoid close encounters with wild goats on this trail. The new regulation would mean that if wildlife were present, no one could stop to enjoy the setting and take in the views. So what is this policy meant to accomplish?

Wildlife Photography by Tony Bynum

How close to wildlife should wildlife photographers and tourists be is a subject of ongoing debate and controversy among regulators, the public, and even some wildlife photographers. Depending on who you ask, opinions differ about proper wildlife viewing policies. I’m not suggesting we all should become Steve Irwins, but if we now no longer can “remain, view, or engage in any activity within 25 yards of any wildlife” and give up our own viewing space, at any cost, we may be creating additional problems. I am saying we should all use some common sense, but the rule, as written is unobtainable assuming people will remain part of the Glacier National Park fabric. The National Park Service, Glacier National Park, appears to believe the observer/visitor should always leave wildlife alone, and ignore and retreat when they are too close. In other words, you might say, “view briefly from a distance, but don’t stay long.” In fact, you might say, “don’t stay at all."

The New Wildlife Viewing Policy

Glacier National Park’s most current policy is, “25 yards from any other wildlife, including nesting birds,” and “100 yards from bears or wolves.” And you must not, “interfere with the free unimpeded movement” (GNP “Final Compendium 2013″ section 1.5, iii, h). After a little more research online, I found this diagram on the Glacier National Park website. It describes 100 feet from mammals like sheep, moose, and elk, but the “Compendium” says only 25 yards. By the way, most of the wildlife photographs on the Glacier National Park website are not consistent with it’s own wildlife viewing policy.



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Distance from wildlife that is considered safe by the National Park Service. 

Personally, I can live with this, but the truth is, some animals become very habituated and exceedingly aggressive when this policy is employed. Let me explain, based on years of observing and photographing wildlife across North America. The National Park Service, Glacier National Park, has updated it’s rules for how close you can be to wildlife in Glacier National Park. Here’s the new policy found in the, “2013 Final Compendium” section 1.5, 111,:

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Specific language from the Glacier National Park "compendium."  

So, given the realities of actively recreating in Glacier National Park – on or off trail, on or off pavement, one could wholly comply with this rule? It is verging on absurd and a challenge in the very least.

When Animals are in Charge

In some national parks (Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Yellowstone and others), wildlife like elk, deer, bears, and even birds and buffalo are so habituated they can actually become dangerous to spectators or observers, because they have zero fear of humans. In fact, they know they’re, “in charge.” Essentially some wildlife have completely lost their fear of humans and have become more aggressive because they have learned that their aggression will actually cause humans to unnecessarily retreat. This power gives them the “upper hand.”

Contrast that with the national forest, or areas where the 25-yard rule is not active. I’d challenge anyone to get within 25 yards of wildlife (with the exception of some campgrounds where you can find wildlife that are routinely fed). . . In areas where you CAN get as close as you want, you seldom see them up close. Why is this?

Mostly, I think it’s due to hunting pressure. That said, if wildlife know that you will run away when they come toward you, they will learn to move faster and with more aggression toward humans – this is opposite to what you would expect. So, it’s my observation that in areas where wildlife are “protected” and people continuously retreat from wildlife, the wildlife become more aggressive and therefore more dangerous. Again, I think this is because there are no consequences to the animal for getting too close to humans — they know they are dominant. In some cases, elk become so aggressive that they charge people and even vehicles, and “attack” when not provoked.

I’m not suggesting you approach potentially dangerous wild animals like a grizzly bear, but when we run from wildlife, naturally they learn that they are in charge. When people don’t move or they put some pressure on wildlife they gain respect and are far less likely to approach people.

Some argue that close is as close as the species will allow without causing harm. In places like Glacier National Park, wildlife photography and viewing is sometimes like shooting fish in a barrel. There are times when if all you want is a photo of a sheep or a goat you might well find your subject cruising the parking lot on Logan Pass. If we always follow the policy, what should we do when wildlife want to be in the parking lot? Do we have to leave?

If you follow the rules, and you stay within 25 yards or approach any wildlife, you are violating the policy and by all accounts could be fined. Go to Logan Pass in the summer and you can see violations all day long . . . Seriously, keeping a safe distance from wildlife is always paramount. But creating rules that teach wildlife to become more “bold” or less afraid of people, might make them more dangerous, not less. It may also result in more dangerous animal human conflict as well. And why even write a policy that we all know will be constantly violated?

Animals that believe they are in charge usually are the ones that get in the most trouble. By there being little or no consequence for aggressive behavior, wildlife become more and more aggressive because they have nothing to fear. In other words, if they learn that charging, or exhibiting aggressive behavior toward humans is acceptable, they will continue to be more and more aggressive. In some cases, wildlife need to know that humans are not subjects to mess with. Just a word of caution. I’m not suggesting we need to chase grizzly bears to make them respect humans. Grizzly bears, are by nature, more likely to stand their ground and fight or even attack if provoked by unwanted advances. By all means don’t approach grizzly bears. If you want to photograph grizzly bears do so at a distance and use long lenses.

For other species like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose, they generally get as close to you as they are comfortable with little risk of harm to either of you. I have a comfort zone that I do not allow wildlife to enter. It’s different depending on the species. If wildlife get too close it makes for difficult photography, too, so I think 25 yards for most things is close enough. But I do not like to allow wildlife that may get too close either by accident or by design to push me around. I do not retreat quickly because sometimes that tactic teaches them that they are dominant and therefore could increase the likelihood of animals taking chances that they would naturally not take. I don’t set out to get close. I do use common sense and give wildlife the distance and respect they deserve, but when I’m outside, in the mountains, I own my space and I decide what to do in it – each circumstance requires calumniated decision making.

At the end of the day, I would rather the wildlife in Glacier National Park not frequent parking lots and some popular nature trails, but as long as the policy is retreat and don’t stick around to view them, they will continue to put everyone in the strange position of violating the wildlife safety rules. Today is also not a time to discourage people from heading to Glacier National Park for some wildlife photography. Just take a look at the huge budget cuts Congress has sent the National Park Service. But that’s a story for another day. I believe if we all used a little more common sense things would be much better for everyone, including the animals.

A final thought. Take a look at the Glacier National Park website and note how they use images of wildlife – how many of those images do you think were captured using it’s own Wildlife Viewing Policy? Even this photograph of a black bear violates it own policy.

Here are a few helpful links.

Glacier National Park Wildlife Policy Press Release: Glacier National Park Wildlife Safety:

Glacier National Park Wildlife Compendium, section 1.5, iii, h

For more information about the wildlife policy in Glacier National Park, contact Denise Germann at 406-888-5838. Enjoy yourselves out there in Glacier National Park, but don’t stick around and watch the animals, just move along please . . .

Tony Bynum lives in East Glacier Park, Montana, where he runs Tony Bynum Photography. This column first appeared on his photography blog.


Good, balanced article and another example of too much government. Make too many rules and regulations and you'll drive away the tourists and their dollars and discourage many from a unique experience.

It almost doesn't need to be repeated but when talking about safety and wildlife shouldn't common sense be the key? The foolish risk takers aren't going to be stopped by any rules and it will just affect the law abiding citizen's park experience.

Yes, Mr. Macgregor, common sense should be the key. However, that often seems to be in short supply when it comes to wildlife viewing in our national park areas. I spent many years in Yellowstone as a ranger. Some of the visitor encounters with park wildlife were actually scary. People want that great photo of a bear, bison, or elk and simply disregard all the warnings about that fact that these animals are really wild and this is not a petting zoo.

Someone once asked me what was the scariest thing I ever saw in Yellowstone. The answer was that I watched a family spread jelly on their little girl's face so they could get a photo of a roadside bear licking her face. Thankfully, she was not injured, but many visitors have been injured or killed by approaching wildlife too closely.

Many park regulations--what you call "too much government"--would not be needed if everyone had the common sense you mention. And, the NPS cannot just treat risk takers as throw aways and not attempt to provide guidance on wildlife viewing. We live in a very litigious society. The NPS would open itself to many legal dangers were it not to establish regulations for activities that are not common in the places where most people live and to which they are not accustomed.

Most of us are not professional photographers as is Mr. Bynum who lives near Glacier and has evidently been around park wildlife for years. Usually what we want is a good photo to put in a trip scrapbook. One does not need to intentionally violate the above-stated policy to get that photo.


Rick, you are missing the point, perhaps because you're too close. The parks are not a zoo. People will not be deterred from getting what they came for by regulations that on their face, are not going to be effective. If liability is what is driving the NPS perhaps they should just prohibit people from leaving their cars at all. Drive to the visitor center, enter an airlock, view the exhibits and drive on. You've seen enough and the NPS gets fewer lawsuits.

The injuries and deaths caused by wildlife in parks are sensational but exceedingly rare. Maybe even more rare than the injuries and deaths that occur in traffic within the parks. Or those caused by criminal activity within the parks. Or even by accidents that occur to visitors where wildlife isn't even part of the equation. I'm sure someone will provide some statistics for us to review.

Un-enforceable regulation will no more deter tourists than speed limits deter speeders. They will however, reduce the level of enjoyment for parks visitors who don't venture 'too close'.

I don't get the intention of this article. Keeping wildlife wild is one of the main purposes of National Parks. So restricting access to them only seems to be logic. The important word in the cited NPS rule is "willfully". If you happen to stumble across a Mountain Goat just in front of you - fine, take a picture, enjoy the sight, and slowly get back. But don't further approach them: it's a wild animal, please keep it that way. What's so problematic about this?

Gila, have you ever been to Glacier National Park? Did you read the issues cited in the piece? Glacier National Park officials built a place for people to go see wildlife. In fact, the areas that receive THE MOST visitation are areas where they built hugely expensive boardwalks, overlooks and trials. Those same areas are in the heart of sheep and goat territory. If you step out of your car at oberlen bend lookout, you are violating the rules. If you hike the highline trail you WILL violate those rules. If you step out of your vehicle in the parking lot at logan pass you are violating the rules . . . In fact, at times, you can not hike or stand on parts of the highline trail or the hidden lake overlook without violating the regulations. How much sense does that make? If they dont want wildlife and human impacts for fear of impacting the wildlife, close the park. Or in the very least take out the wheel chair ramps and boardwalks that are built right in the heart of mountain goat rearing habitat. . . Did i mention marmots? Who's looking anyhow right? At the end of the day, it's going to be about enforcement and the skills and knowledge of the officers who are in charge of writing violations . . . Some argue that it's about a litigious society. it's not, it's not. please, that's not why the rules were drafted that way. they were drafted that way to make all the rules in all the parks the same that way when people from california, oregon, idaho, wyoming, vermont, newyork, and so one, come to glacier they know the rules - some rules work in jellystone, some work in tetons, and other's work in glacier. But if innocent people are going to be violating the rules, i think the park service should do it's job and close areas if we are that much of a blight, or get their enforcement guys and their education team out in the field to teach us all how to act in the woods . . .

It's always easy to criticize and lament "too much government," but it's a whole lot more difficult to actually write a policy that will achieve objectives such as keeping people and animals together and safe in an environment unfamiliar to many of the human critters.

Here's a challenge: Write a regulation that will do the job and keep everyone happy. Be sure it meets the objectives needed and stays within all budget and personnel restraints.

Then submit it here so other people may express their opinions.

Tony, great article! I have often thought the same as you about the policies when I am taking a photo. I have taken about the same photo at Hidden Lake overlook. I think each animal has a treshhold that they will tolerate and I believe you are correct in saying that these goats are conditioned to have a lower threshhold than a normally wild goat should have...thus allowing a closer proximity to them. But I do feel that a person needs to know a great deal about each subject animal in order to know what possible outcomes of his behavior to your proximity. I think the NPS policy is sound from a litigious viewpoint to protect the public from stupidity but its enforcement is still at the discretion of the ranger. If a chipmonk begs for food because some previous persons have conditioned it to come up to ranger will write you a ticket for taking a photo. However they should ticket you if you feed it. Just my thought anyway.

Write a regulation that will do the job and keep everyone happy.

We don't need regulation, just notification.

"Enter this park at your own risk. Educate yourself and heed all warnings. You will be responsible for any damages or cost you incure. The NPS, the government and tax payers will not be responsible for your ignorance."

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