Gag reflex 

Why is Yellowstone keeping one of its rangers quiet?

Like blood or sinew, Yellowstone National Park is part of Bob Jackson. A seasonal park ranger since 1969 and a ranger in the Bridger Teton Wilderness since 1972, Jackson often feels most at home amidst the birds and animals, under the changing skies and shifting clouds on the 500-square-mile stretch of God’s country far from any road or civilization. As a seasonal ranger, he gets no health insurance, no retirement, and a modest paycheck.

And these days, plenty of media attention.

On Aug. 31, Jackson was issued a “gag order” by his supervisor, Lloyd Kortge, forbidding him from speaking with the media about the cause of a growing number of grizzly bear shootings at the boundaries of Yellowstone. According to a new government study released this fall, elk hunting on the boundary of the park—specifically, the practice of drawing elk with salt licks, which in turn attracts bears to hunters’ gut piles—is altering the feeding habits of grizzlies. The study confirms what Jackson has long been saying: that non-enforcement of anti-salting and other hunting regulations is negatively affecting Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population.

“We don’t call this a ‘gag order,’” says Marsha Carly, chief of public affairs at Yellowstone. “We call it part of a personnel action. I’m not at liberty to say how the action came about, as it’s a privacy issue. …” According to Carly, this is the first time the park has issued such a “personnel action.”

But according to Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, ordering a public employee to refrain from talking while off-duty is absurd.

“I don’t know how legal or illegal a gag order is, but take a step back. It’s a wholly inappropriate thing for the park to ask of one of its employees,” says Scott. “Public employees, like citizens of this country, have a right to voice their opinions. The park doesn’t necessarily have to agree.”

Last summer, like every other year he has worked as a seasonal ranger, Jackson went through the proper channels, talking to the media only after an interview had been sanctioned by the park’s public affairs office.

“The supervisor who signed my gag order told me this action was initiated because two journalists were persistent in trying to get permission to see me,” says Jackson. “I had informed my supervisors about the first journalist. I didn’t even recognize the name of the second, whom I had supposedly talked with. … Because I’m in the backcountry most of the time, I knew little of journalists’ requests to interview me.”

“Of course Bob has the right to free speech. He cannot, however, express his opinions on behalf of the park. He is not employed by us on the off-season,” says Carly. “The salt lick issue is entirely different from the media issue with Bob. We appreciated his input on that problem. Yellowstone National Park and the United States Forest Service are aware of the craters old salt licks have created and the problems they are causing for the environment and for the animals. Change is happening, but it takes time. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what Jackson is saying. … It’s a personnel issue. Beyond that, I can’t comment.”

“I think what it all boils down to is that, politically, the emphasis is to keep the grizzly on the fast track for de-listing,” argues Jackson, referring to the grizzlies’ status under the federal Endangered Species Act. “I think the park thought what I was saying would slow down the de-listing process.”

As Jackson explains, bears are hungry before they hibernate, and they’re smart. If bear begin to associate a gunshot with a large gut pile of fresh elk meat, they will learn this quickly. Their fear of humans is already decreasing, causing more human/bear contacts, which often do not end well for either party.

“Some say there is no correlation between the illegal use of salt licks and the increasing number of hunter-related grizzly deaths,” says Jackson. “I want to show that they are wrong, that this misinformation will harm our land and animals.”

In July, Wyoming passed a state law prohibiting the use of salt licks for hunting. “No one is out there enforcing these laws, arresting poachers who are breaking these laws, especially in remote areas like Thorofare, so a new law isn’t going to change much,” argues Jackson.

But Jay Anderson, who works in public affairs for the Bridger Teton Wilderness, disagrees. “We have hunting patrols all year round. In response to the law passed in July, we’ve put certain guidelines in the permits and literature for hunters and outfitters regarding the illegal use of salt baiting,” he says. “We have also expanded our patrol. It’s a big country out there. It’s like enforcing speeding on the freeway. It can’t be overseen at all times.”

Part of the problem, says Scott, is that hunting has become more a game that revolves around “hunter success” rather than the whole experience. Many hunters pick outfitters with the highest success rate, who all but guarantee each hunter an elk.

“Hunting used to be about the experience itself, not about doing whatever it takes—legal or not—to shoot an animal,” says Scott. “Agencies need to educate hunters and outfitters, to get hunters back to the ethical activity hunting once was.”

He says some outfitters now organize week-long hunting trips for as many as 95 hunters at a time, instead of the 12 to 15 hunter in years past, grossing as much as $400,000 in a seven-week period.

“I have always thought of myself as a public servant. I love Yellowstone and am concerned about what is happening to its land and animals,” says Jackson. “I just want to get back to the job I do well, and play an active role in keeping animals and people safe. Shouldn’t I be able to voice my concerns, do my job?”

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