Crossing the Line
The relationship between wild animals and humans is simple. Wildlife is wild. Humans, often appearing wild, are not. There is a line that should not be crossed. Interestingly, animals and humans both seem to get mixed up on this concept. I learned this from visiting the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center (GWDC) in West Yellowstone, MT. Now, you may ask why we would pay to visit a wildlife habitat with Yellowstone National Park on our doorstep!
It all started when Greg’s parents drove 1,050 miles from their home in southern California to visit us a few weeks ago…. Or maybe it was Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres of sheer beauty that enticed them to hit the road? In any event, we spent 2-1/2 glorious days in the park together enjoying Old Faithful, Firehole Falls, Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake and every place in between.
Bison herds greeted us, elk proudly displayed velvet antlers, a bald eagle posed for photos, pronghorns pranced in the meadows, a grouse strutted across the road but…not a bear was sighted in all the familiar haunts. Frustrating to Greg and I since bears, cubs and wolves were out in force before the folks arrived and continue to be so (more on that in future posts). Our cool temperatures and recent spring snowfall are keeping wild life more visible at lower elevations. But, the park delivers what it chooses on an any given day.
So, we called on the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, home to several grizzlies from as nearby as Yellowstone National Park to as far away as Alaska. Like humans, they all have a story. Sam, the largest at the center, weighing about 1,000 lbs., wandered into an Alaskan fishing village as a cub with his sister in 1996 after his mother disappeared. Not knowing how to forage for food in the wild and with the “help” of well meaning villagers who fed him, he soon became a nuisance bear, relying on the village for his food supply. Unable to live in the wild nor co-exist with humans he had the good fortune to be relocated to the center. All bears at the center are grizzlies and despite their unique stories they have one thing in common… conflict with humans. The line has been crossed.
A local West Yellowstone bear, now 32 years old, named Sow 101, lived in the wild for 20 years. As a mama bear, she taught several sets of cubs how to survive in nature’s habitat until, through human error, she and her cubs gained access to pet food and unsecured human food and garbage. Becoming overly attracted to human foods, she was removed from the wild in 2002 and began a slow, but successful, adaption to life at the center.
According to GWDC: “These bears learn to obtain food from people, damage property in search of food or become aggressive toward people and are usually killed. Instead of being destroyed, the eight bears that reside at the GWDC were rescued and are ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild.”
The center nurtures bears’ natural wild behaviors in a large outdoor habitat. Groups of bears are rotated outdoors throughout the day from their individual indoor areas to search for food hidden under rocks, logs and in trees and to fish for trout in a stocked pond. Staff vary food and rearrange habitat features routinely keeping the bears mentally and physically healthy. You’ve heard of bear proof food/trash containers? Well what better place than the center to test out the latest designs! We watched a bear wrestle and toss a large cooler like a box of Cracker Jacks seeking the prize within. He didn’t get that one open but the nearby graveyard exhibit of “not-so-bear-proof” containers proudly displayed previous successes!
Seven wolves, born in captivity at other facilities and unable to survive in the wild reside at the center. As in the wild, they maintain their hierarchy in packs. Alpha males/females lead the pack and Omega males/females hold the lowest rank. Wolf packs in the wild are ever changing as pack hierarchy is challenged. Some leave to join other packs or start new ones.
As young pups, the GWDC wolves grew up in two distinct packs until natural behaviors showed it was time for two Omega male wolves from each to separate from their respective packs. Leopold and Summit, now form a third wolf pack and are getting along well. Packs are rotated into a large natural habitat for feeding throughout the day giving visitors a peek at their elusive behaviors. Wolves are scent oriented and keepers sprinkle spices, unusual scents, bones, elk and deer meat in the habitat fostering their natural feeding behaviors.
Birds of prey, including a falcon, great-horned owl, bald eagles and more also call GWDC home.
A visit to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is well worth the nominal general admittance fee of $11.50 for two consecutive days. The center’s exhibits, movies, educational programs and website are informative, entertaining and well done. Meet these amazing animals and read their stories at http://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.com.