GUEST OPINION: Keep Jackson Wild

By on September 22, 2015

Citizens must take steps to ensure peaceful co-existence among ‘everyone’

Craig Benjamin’s new neighborhood watch. (Photo: Craig Benjamin)

Craig Benjamin’s new neighborhood watch. (Photo: Craig Benjamin)

Black bears breaking into a Hoback home, raiding picnics at String Lake and shutting down the Moose-Wilson road. Smoke from monster wildfires across the west fouling our air so badly the Tetons disappeared from sight. A Grizzly snacking on apples in South Park. Wildfires in Yellowstone and Kemmerer. We read stories like this in the news all the time. Stories that remind us we live in a wild place.

Then there are the stories we don’t read about, like the all-too-typical one that took place in my front yard last winter.

“Daddy! Daddy! There’s a moose in our yard!” My daughter Piper screamed with delight. “No, wait, there’s two of them!” This January a cow and a calf decided they liked the taste of the tree in our front yard and that our front lawn seemed like a cozy place to settle in and hang out for the day. It was fun for a bit, watching Piper and her brother Ryder oooo” and “ahhhover the swamp donkeys munching away inches from their wide eyes, protected only by two panes of glass. The fun began to wane around lunch time when my wife Stacy texted me asking what to do because the moose were still hanging out and she wasn’t sure how to safely get to her car in the driveway. The fun turned dangerous when a group of school kids tried to walk home and the cow didn’t appreciate their presence so near her young (fortunately, they made it home safely).

Living in Jackson Hole, we’ve all had encounters with wildlife. Thankfully, most are thrilling and fun. Regrettably, some aren’t. There are stories of moose becoming trapped and drowning in aerated ponds, elk getting caught in holiday lights and moose getting hammocks tangled in their paddles. There are also tales of well-meaning yet misguided people feeding deer and moose, luring the ungulates and, consequently, predators closer to developed areas; deer and moose finding their migration corridors blocked by impassable fences – some attempting to jump and becoming injured, ensnared or separated from their offspring; moose and bison wandering into neighborhoods, attracted by palatable landscaping, and homeowners finding themselves effectively stranded in their homes (like my wife Stacy last winter).

Living in Jackson Hole also means living in wildfire country. The 2012 Horsethief Canyon fire cost millions and put the town itself at risk, while the 2001 Green Knoll fire threatened hundreds of homes. Primarily because of climate change, the risk of bigger, badder wildfires is expected to increase sevenfold in the coming years. Imagine the 1988 Yellowstone fires becoming a normal occurrence. Consider that approximately 4,500 homes in Teton County are located in the wildland-urban interface, directly in the path of future wildfires. Think about the threat this poses to our families, our homes and property, and the budgets of the Forest Service and our local firefighting agencies.

Fortunately, there are many efforts in our community working to reduce conflicts with wildlife and preparing our community for wildfire. Efforts like education campaigns about living with wildlife, seasonal lectures and talks about wildlife safety, free bear spray distribution for hunters and collaborations to fund the installation of bear boxes in forest service campgrounds. There are also home wildfire assessments and associated cost-sharing programs to provide support for “firewise” improvements, and an inter-agency community wildfire protection plan. Our agency experts take time away from the emergencies of fighting fires and dealing with wildlife conflicts to knock on doors, talk to individual homeowners, share experiences and inform us about the best ways to reduce wildlife conflict and prepare for wildfire.   

Unfortunately, despite these and many other laudable efforts, we still have a long way to go as a community. Improperly stored garbage, feed, and other attractants are the number one source of conflict between people and black bears. Less than 10 percent of the thousands of homes in the wildland-urban interface are protected to “firewise” standards. Many homeowners associations have covenants that directly contradict best practices for reducing conflicts with wildlife and preparing homes for wildfire. And too many people either don’t know about or choose to ignore rules aimed at protecting wildlife.

We are privileged to live in a wild place with abundant wildlife, located in the heart of the last remaining large, nearly intact ecosystem in the continental United States. But, here’s the thing —with privilege comes responsibility. Each of us has a moral responsibility to do what we can on our property to make life easier for wildlife and prepare for wildfire.

When we shirk this personal responsibility, our wildlife and wild lands pay the price. For example, unattended and improperly stored garbage often attracts bears into our neighborhoods, leading to our wildlife management agencies having to relocate, and even euthanize, these food-conditioned bears. Shorter version: our negligence kills bears.

We can protect bears and our families by taking personal responsibility for our trash and bird feeders. Similarly, we can make our homes and properties “firewise” to reduce the burden on our public lands agencies to manage fuels in our national forests.

This is why a coalition of local agencies and nonprofits in Jackson Hole launched the Wild Neighborhoods website last month (WildNeighborhoods.org). This website highlights ways Teton County homeowners can take proactive measures to reduce conflicts with wildlife and prepare for wildfire through guest blog reports, interactive and downloadable checklists, educational videos and a resource library. It brings together information from credible sources and provides a fun and interactive one-stop shop that makes it easy for you to know how to do the right thing.

We recognize that a fancy website won’t completely address the challenges we face, but we’re hopeful that by making it easier for people to take small steps in alignment with our shared values of protecting wildlife and our families, we can make a constructive difference.

Many people simply don’t know what they can do or have little idea that what they’re doing might actually harm wildlife (like feeding them). Heck, even some of our most prominent wildlife experts have made mistakes (check out the website for a great story involving a moose and a hammock). Please visit WildNeighborhoods.org to see what you can do to help our community live in balance with nature.

The Wild Neighborhoods program is a coalition of local agencies and nonprofits in Jackson Hole that provides homeowners with information and resources regarding proactive measures to reduce conflicts with wildlife and prepare for wildfire. Partners include Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, National Park Service, Teton Interagency Fire, Teton Raptor Center, The Cougar Fund, The Murie Center, Wyoming Game & Fish Department and Wyoming Wildlife Federation. PJH

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.


About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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