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Know the West

The last I looked, national parks weren’t zoos


"Yellowstone is a better park than Glacier because you can see more animals," so announced one hiking client as I guided us through dense old-growth cedars. I didn’t know how to respond.

Was I puzzled by the implication that our national parks should be rated on the same scale, even though each was set aside for unique features found nowhere else on earth? Was I dismayed that seeing wildlife seems to mark the parks' "real" value? Or had my client nailed something in all of us — that desire to pursue the wild?

Viewing wildlife presents us with the remarkable. Fur, talons, keen vision and four legs of other creatures bring us face to face with our humanity and what makes us unique as a species. I’ve had my close encounters with grizzlies and wolverines, each producing a mixture of wonder and panic. But deep inside, I longed to see them even more closely, where I could safely examine the length of their claws and gaze into their eyes to discover what "wild" really was.

But in our desire to comprehend "wild," we skew off in crazy directions. Modeling Wild Kingdom's Marlin Perkins, we race through our parks grabbing what sightings of wildlife we can.

Frequently at a trip’s beginning, my clients announce what wildlife they hope to see. Many long to spot a grizzly, whereas those who have read Night of the Grizzlies are petrified about spying a bear even as a brown dot in a high meadow. Bear-scared folks prefer to see stately Roosevelt elk, bighorn sheep or gray wolves. In most cases, the "I want to see" wish lists usually focus on charismatic megafauna; no one asks if we’ll stumble upon Columbian ground squirrels or boreal toads.

It’s as if visiting the wilds requires a check list for "been there, done that." Somehow, life takes on a certain completeness when one can check off a wild big boy: check, I saw a moose; check, I saw a mountain goat; check, I saw a big silver grizzly. Most parks even provide fauna and avian checklists for visitors to track their sightings. Few people care if their list fails to show a check for a pygmy shrew, the tiniest carnivore.

On an excursion I guided through Glacier National Park, we joined a bear-jam where a ranger blared her siren to scare a black bear off into the brush. The bruin simply ignored the ruckus for a while before meandering away. Once it did, my disgruntled clients vented their anger at the disruption to their wildlife viewing.

I explained the ranger’s actions: The bear’s behavior indicated prior experience with the siren, most likely because it had been frequenting the roadside, a prelude to trouble. The ranger aimed to protect the bear, trying to teach it that the road is not a safe place. Too much involvement with humans can end in the bear’s destruction.

Disgusted, one of my clients responded, "Then how are people driving the road supposed to see bears?"

I wanted to yell, "Go to a zoo!"

Yet we can’t totally blame urban neophytes for not knowing the difference between a zoo and a national park. Many parks brag about their animals — their bears, birds, wolves, especially any species that is endangered or threatened. And rightly so, as increased public consciousness about the status of these creatures serves to make people want to protect them.

Even if it is a roadside bear viewed from the relative safety of our vehicle, it is still a wild creature we’ve seen. It’s as if once we’ve spotted an animal in the wild, we’ve survived its fangs and claws. The blood of our ancestors still runs deep through our veins, from a time when fear of predation ruled the country’s wild corners and Darwinian laws drove our actions.

Now, a big-beast photograph travels home as a trophy to surviving an encounter with wildness. I understand the impulse: When a golden eagle drops out of the sky, I find myself instinctively grabbing my camera, and swear under my breath as it stays just out of photographic range. Something drives me to record the moment, as if catching the King of Birds on film will help me define "wild."

With checklists and photographic electronic marvels at our disposal, we’ve lost the moment of magical awe, that moment when wild is just wild, and we’re there to breathe its mystery.

Wait…where’s my camera? There goes a Canada lynx!

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes from Whitefish, Montana, where she works as a guide in Glacier National Park.