Every year, millions of visitors take to the roads around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks hoping to glimpse a grizzly bear in the wild. Celebrity bears like 399, or Felicia who spends her days near the northern edge of the Jackson Hole valley, have made a living for themselves and their young along roadside habitats. Conveniently, their presence in these areas offers visitors easy wildlife viewing opportunities.
In some ways, roadside bears like 399 or Felicia have become ambassadors for the region’s parks. They are known and beloved. They have fanfare equal to that of some legendary hollywood stars. Their status, and their presence, attracts millions of visitors and their dollars.
But just how big, really, is their draw?
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which receive over 3.5 million visitors a year, drive the economic engine of gateway communities in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. According to studies conducted in the last several decades on bear viewing in the parks, the vast majority of visitors (85-95%) hope to observe animals in the wild, a percentage higher even than the desire to watch Old Faithful erupt, or enjoy the breathtaking view of the Teton range on a clear blue day. Wildlife tourism alone brings in close to $1 billion annually to regional economies – think about all the people who spend money at restaurants and hotels, on a new pair of binoculars, or at a trinket store for that extra piece of memorabilia.
Seeing Grizzly Bears Ranked #1
There is no doubt that wildlife viewing – especially of charismatic megafauna – contributes to the Mountain West’s economy. And grizzly bears, or at the least the potential to see one, are number one on everyone’s list.
Just ask wildlife guide and naturalist Kevin Taylor, who’s been leading trips in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem since 2002. At the start of most trips, Taylor often poses a question to his guests: Why are you here? The most common response? To see bears in the wild.
Jason Williams, another longtime guide, agrees. “My impression is that the amount of people who want to see bears is even higher than wolves,” says Williams. “There’s a fascination with bears, something about them that really resonates with people.”
Williams owns and operates Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris and has been guiding in the region for over 14 years. The growth of his company in that time is a testament to the growth of ecotourism, the second largest contributor to Wyoming’s economy. “People want to be outside and have an encounter with wild animals. Wildlife viewing is one of the major reasons that people visit these parks.”
“If bears weren’t here, people would go other places,” says Williams. He recounts that it wasn’t until the late 1990s that grizzlies really started moving back into the region. The Greater Yellowstone today is “considered a great place to see brown bears, second only to parts of Alaska. This helps to drive traffic here. Without bears, we’d be losing out on a lot of visitation.”
Grizzlies Worth More Alive Than Dead
There are other stories that link wildlife viewing to visitor dollars in the region. Several winters back, a bobcat living along the Madison River near West Yellowstone captured the hearts and camera lenses of people across the country, and a steady influx of visitors poured in. A bobcat viewing industry burgeoned overnight, and some professional photographers lucky enough to snap a photo of the elusive cat sold their images for thousands of dollars. A study later estimated the economic value of the bobcat to communities in northwestern Wyoming at $308,105 during that single season, compared to its paltry $315 value when trapped or hunted. In a growth scenario, that animal’s value would double after a second season, and across its lifetime one bobcat could generate over $1 million in revenue across multiple economic sectors.
This is not the first study, by the way, to conclude that an animal in the wild is worth more alive than as a pelt or trophy. A 2014 study found that bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia outpaced bear hunting revenues in the region by nearly $14 million.
Now consider this: If that single bobcat mentioned above – unknown, unnamed, with no book written about it – could be worth that much as a living, breathing, wild species, what would be the cumulative value of a celebrity grizzly like 399? A bear whose life story has been intimately chronicled by tourists, photographers, and wildlife watchers around the globe for each of her 24 years. You do the comparison.
Wildlife Viewing and Grizzly Conservation
Wildlife guides like Williams and Taylor understand that bear viewing offers a powerful moment of connection with that species that is important to the future of grizzly conservation. Apart from its immense economic value to the region, Williams reminds us that bear viewing “is a way for people to reconnect with the natural world. Even at a distance of 100 yards, it’s really something to be standing there watching this predator doing its thing in the wild. They are no longer a species to be feared. And people come away with a new enthusiasm and excitement, a new affinity for wildlife. The less people that see bears, the less people that will love them.”