“Does wisdom perhaps appear on the earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion?”
“The worthiest people are the most injured by slander, as is the best fruit which the birds have been pecking at”
In the instant that the idea of my spending the winter in Yellowstone came up I knew in my heart that it was the next part of my traveling journey. The next path to follow.
I learned early on, after leaving home behind and beginning my endless travel journey, that it would do no good to draw up an itinerary and so I settle in to go with the flow. Always, when the next destination is on the horizon, I am filled with wonder and anticipation and my mind sees nothing but excitement and good things. Inevitably, I am eventually reminded that no matter how wondrous a place like a national park is, I get to sort out fantasy and reality.
When I envisioned life in Yellowstone, I saw wild animals struggling to survive in the cold, snowy winter landscape. I knew that watching nature under harsh conditions would not always be pretty but I prepared myself to meet the realities of nature head on. Wolves, of course, played the top role in my mind but I had only seen them in the wild a couple of times and so the learning slate was clean and I couldn’t wait to learn.
Never did it occur to me that there would be a small group of humans who spent their winter in Lamar Valley watching wolves and claiming ownership of them. Negative encounters with people was the last thing on my mind.
Yet, when the rest of the park closed and I began frequenting the highway between Mammoth and Silver Gate, I quickly found what felt like an iron wall around the wolf world. I tried stopping at pullouts where people had scopes set up but the welcoming committee was never out. Folks would glance at me and quickly turn back to their scopes, never looking up, even if I approached.
The truth is, I had forgotten about my first encounter with the wolf watching world out at Hitching Post on the day that ’06 brought her pups, 820, Middle Gray, etc., out into the world the first time. I remember shouts of joy and exclamations that they were not sure that they had survived. I remember talk about two black pups and through my camera lens thought that perhaps I saw them running on a ledge. A shiver of excitement for the unknown found its way through me.
People began to gather on the little hill and voices became hushed and I overheard people telling others not to say anything. All of this confused me. I was the only photographer on that hill when the pups were seen and I asked one man what was going on. He told me that photographers were not welcome in Yellowstone. Huh? I was there, in May, on a solo tent camping trip, filled with wonder, courage and excitement – an empowerment to be embracing nature on my own terms and someone was telling me that I was not welcome in a national park.
The crowd of people with scopes began to move back and away from the crowd, to their own little spot and I definitely felt like I was not welcome to follow.
After awhile I went to leave and met Rick for the first time. He asked me what I was doing there, in Yellowstone, and I told him about being a photographer.
“Oh, you are one of those,” he told me with a smirky smile.
Let me assure you, when you are in a place for only a day or two and people tell you that you are not welcome, you don’t rush back.
Every time I saw people set up with scopes the pull outs would be filled with haphazard parking and cold shoulders. People would see me start to slow down and suddenly scopes that had been set on a specific location began to turn in all different directions. It was impossible to stop and too frustrating to get the cold shoulders. No doubt, if I could have penetrated the wall, there would have been some very kind people who would have been more than willing to tell me about wolves but from the outside looking in, I could not have known that.
And, so, that was my only wolf sighting in Yellowstone until I came to spend the winter. During other visits I stayed away from the scopes and others told me that they did the same thing, which meant that we were all missing out on seeing and learning about the wolves.
Last November, when I began to get the the cold shoulders, my frustration was high. I wanted to see wolves, wanted to learn about them and more than anything, wanted a reason to care about them. I wanted to know if what the wolf haters said was true or false. But, I could not know that for myself, without seeing.
I asked a lot of questions about who was who and quickly found out that the people watching wolves were visitors just like myself and that the park had given them no authority over who could see the wolves, or whether they could tell me what to do. I was told that Rick was the only employee and he had people helping him keep track of wolves and that was it. And, I was told that all of the information regarding the wolves was public, except that which is gotten from GPS collars. And, time and time again, I heard complaints about some of the watchers and the trouble that they had caused for others.
I made a decision to do whatever it took to get along with everyone, otherwise it would be a long winter. And, so I stood out and watched the wolves, asked questions and provided any information on what I had seen. It was cold out there but that was a small price to pay.
And then the holidays came and so did some other folks who had frequently watched the wolves over the years. There were two woman with radios, who seemed to have been doing this thing for a long time, loudly making fun of Rick and that seem super odd to myself and others who witnessed the behavior.
And, then one early morning, one of those two women decided that I had somehow known that the wolves would be crossing the road and had looked right at her before making the decision to intercept the animals.
The wolves did appear on the side of the road and I stopped a long ways back and watched as they took their sweet time going across. During the entire episode, instead of enjoying the view, I was worried about being judged by the watchers. Worried because I had heard plenty of judgement of others and not all of it had been warranted.
Later, on a borrowed Rick radio, I heard two watchers conspiring to keep me from knowing wolf location information that had been gathered from telemetry. Besides, the wolves were miles away, on top of the mountain.
I demanded of one of the women to know what made her think that she owned the wolves. I used language that I had not used in years. You see, I had been trying to play the game – trying to do everything possible to not have problems with these people and one simple mistake made from not having a clue where the wolves were, had turned my life upside down. I was on the outs and I did not want to be there.
For a short time, I had been having the time of my life watching those wolves and having others to hang out with for a couple of hours a day. But all of that came crashing down in an instant and not one person even bothered to talk to me about it. Despite my having tried to talk to someone and let them know that what I had done was not intentional. They prosecuted me on the spot and the rest of winter lay ahead.
Because one woman decided that I had committed an intentional act, I was no longer allowed to know anything about the wolves.
Yes, I was angry but once everything calmed down and we talked about the situation, I apologized for my language and was told that it was alright because she would have reacted the same way.
But it wasn’t alright and I reported the confrontation to law enforcement to let them know the role I had played and why.
The biggest thing that I could not understand was how these people watching the wolves and keeping their information from the general public was helping the animals? The hunt was on and several wolves had been killed, people were telling lies about them and they needed advocates more than ever but, yet, there was this group of people who were whispering location information to their friends, as if the secret wolf world belonged to them only.
Meanwhile, people, like myself, were taking photos and sharing everything Yellowstone with the public. Because of this, my Facebook popularity grew and grew. People loved my updates about everything that was going on in the park, even on the days when the information was not all that pleasant but was real. For me, seeing an image of a wolf and hearing somebody describe what they saw, was the most powerful tool against the wolf haters, while those who stood and tried to keep them from the public did more damage to their reputation. Why love and advocate for something that you don’t have access to?
My unpopularity in Yellowstone wolf world grew but I just continued my winter in Yellowstone. Not much appreciating the tension but it was still a national park and I still knew that a handful of people had no authority over the wolves.
But, was that true? I soon began hearing reports of blackmail directed towards those who supported me. If they didn’t stop supporting me they would not get the secret email about the wolves. Seriously? And so that meant that what we paid for was the watered down, not always truthful version of wolf world? The true version of wolf world went out in secret emails, containing even more information that is obtained from telemetry and a wolf project employee? Not right!
I continued on.
At some point I decided that Yellowstone was too fascinating to leave in the spring and so decided to try and stay by working as a volunteer. I applied to the Yellowstone Association but when the watchers found out they went and pre-empted my interview with their tales. I did not get the volunteer job but did get a job tucked away at the book store in Fishing Bridge. Yay, money! And, living at Fishing Bridge. I was beyond excited about this job.
And when the wolf watchers found out, they once again went to YA to complain about me, telling them that they couldn’t have someone like me working for them. I remember walking into the Gardiner store and seeing the looks on two watcher’s faces, just a couple of days after my hiring.
Still, the contract to work for them was sent and signed. I was hired and life was good.
I was a little troubled by a photographer’s reaction to my job because of thinking that we were friends. But, no word for two weeks after getting the job, until a text came out of the blue and congratulated me. The following day that photographer tracked me down in the park, asked to use my scope and pumped me for even more information about my photography and how I went about selling images. By this time I was selling quite a bit and my Facebook popularity continued to grow.
Later that day I received a phone call from my boss, telling me about an email from the photographer’s wife that described me as a strong woman, a photographer and being aggressive with my photo sales. The wife was concerned that I might try to sell my images in the YA store. My boss was angry about the email and the gossip and felt ridiculous in warning me against selling photos while working. I never even give my business card out unless someone else asks about it first.
I asked the photographer about this email and he claimed to not know about it but would find out. I urged him to just drop it and let me just get to work without any more hassle. He told me then that I needed to be aware that watchers had gone to YA before and after I got the job. I knew that but thanks for the information. I wondered how he knew so much about YA personnel information. He promised to not say anything about the email.
Two days later my boss tells me that he got in trouble for sharing the author of the email. But, he still has no qualms about hiring me.
A week later my boss sent an email to tell me that my contract to work for the Yellowstone Association had been rescinded.
For the past two weeks myself, some friends and an attorney have been on a fact finding mission to discover who, what, why…
The photographer said that every time he went into the park there was some sort of conflict surrounding me and that I had had run ins with law enforcement and rangers. This was news to me. Just because I am doing my thing and not engaging with any of the watchers, does not mean I am creating some sort of conflict. It means that they just aren’t happy with my presence and that they continued to talk about it. And, after talking to law enforcement, I learned that there had not been one single complaint about me since the December incident that I had originally reported. I did learn that Rick had asked to have me investigated because I was retired law enforcement and could possibly be carrying a gun (which is legal in a national park) because they were concerned about their safety after my violent outburst. I also heard that they had reported other cussing confrontations at the same time as the one and only but none of them were true.
And so my mature, dealing with a conflict was misconstrued as violent. Funny thing is, though, that another very well respected couple witnessed the whole event and said that they were applauding me because everything I said was true and needed to be said – their words, not mine.
Yellowstone Association said that they had received numerous complaints about me from watchers and donors. They admitted that the donors had not seen any incident (neither did most of the watchers, including Rick) but had been told about them. They cited that I had had numerous confrontations and they believed I was unstable. And, they were concerned about my run ins with law enforcement but never called them to find out if they were true. Instead, they said that they “verified” everything. From whom? They needed to protect my privacy. They had no idea why I had not been arrested and was still allowed in the park, despite the fact that they had been told that I had bragged about carrying a weapon and had threatened people’s lives. If it were me, I sure would have reported those incidents to law enforcement.
No, I had had a retired cop to cop conversation about the scary feelings of anger that were associated with those who target Yellowstone wolves. She wanted to run them off of the cliff with her car and I was glad that my weapon was not accessible. Both actions, same results if carried out. An innocent conversation between two people with similar backgrounds that was about wolf killers and no one else. And so the lies built.
Obviously, there are some people who want me out of Yellowstone. Whether is is because of the popularity of my daily updates about life in Yellowstone, my photo sales, or the fact that I told the truth about what I have seen. What I have seen, is that there is a small group of people trying to control visitor’s movements and sights in Yellowstone and they have made it very unpleasant for a large number of people.
I honestly can not understand why Yellowstone allows this to continue. Particularly when their employees complain about being treated the same way as I have described. Particularly when their employees say that they also avoid Lamar and that crowd. Particularly when avoiding that crowd means that a whole lot of people don’t get to see the wolves. Some things to think about.
Honestly, I am better off not working for an organization that would indict a person based on gossip and an obvious conflict of interest. And, not having a job frees me up to be out in the park, enjoying everything that it has to offer. So, once again, my path is carved out before me and I am following it to the destination. My plan is never as good as the one I am meant to follow.