Several yards off Moose-Wilson Road two cow elk munch on undergrowth in the golden-hour morning light, and our guide slows the van and pulls off onto the narrow dirt shoulder opposite the tawny ungulates.

The seven rubber-necking passengers are intrigued as one of the elk raises her head and freezes, staring in our direction. Seconds later, Mike Vanian puts the vehicle in drive and slowly rolls away. “I don’t want to stress them out or anything,” he says to his clients. “It’s breakfast time.”

Vanian guides for Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures, one of the throngs of wildlife tour companies operating in Jackson Hole. Most have the word “safari” in their name or marketing, a word that originates from Swahili for journey and before that the Arabic verb for travel. The caricature is people in khakis and Jeeps venturing into the African bush for a chance to shoot — with a camera or a gun — some of the continent’s signature wildlife, like rhinos and giraffes, elephants and lions. North American safaris are not associated with hunting, but still draw customers with the promise of seeing big game. In that sense, safari refers to an expedition to see wildlife in their natural habitat.

These expeditions are a booming business stateside, and especially here in this southern nook of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. “Industry-wide, the wildlife component is a very sought-after adventure for guests traveling through Jackson, Wyoming,” said Jason Smith, marketing manager at Scenic Safaris. “It’s a big reason for why people come here. It’s an economic driver.” Jackson Hole’s commercial wildlife- watching industry is among the most robust in the continental U.S., thanks largely to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. In the past decade the industry has grown fourfold, from about 10 outfits to over 40 companies offering tours. The leap has carved a lasting economic niche in the tourism industry but also illustrates increased public interest in wildlife. “The whole industry has really taken off,” said Jason Williams, owner of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. “Commercial wildlife watching globally has grown explosively, especially with nonconsumptive activities like birdwatching and professional wildlife photography.”

The popularity of wildlife watching is evident at 7:30 on a Thursday summer morning along a Grand Teton National Park backroad. Vanian pulls over to the side of the dirt road and hops out with a pair of binoculars to scan the distant hillside for wildlife. Before the dust settles two other vans from other companies have pulled up. One is a rig full of customers we saw at the Blacktail Ponds pullout earlier while watching a moose weave between the willows. “Does anyone see any other animals?” Vanian asks. In the moment the only ones visible to the naked eye are is roadside herd of Homo sapiens.

How authentic is wildlife watching really when a tour can be such a zoo? Some longtime wildlife watchers and photographers lament the commercialization of Jackson Hole’s iconic critters and landscapes, but a run-of-the-mill tourist has only one other option to take it in — going at it alone. Traveling through the park with a vanload or busload of people is a different experience than exploring alone, but guides know what’s where when, and they have the know-how to avoid crowds. Consolidating visitors on tours also reduces traffic in the park. Tour guides interact with tens of thousands of visitors each year, a boon to the understaffed and underfunded National Park Service. At times guides serve as backup for rangers, reminding visitors who aren’t their clients to keep their distance from the animals and to stay on Yellowstone boardwalks. Guides can be the “eyes and ears of the park,” in Williams’ words, reporting wildlife-tourist altercations or traffic accidents to park dispatch.

Although the industry has grown sharply, it’s not a complete wildlife-watching free-for-all. Commercial activities in national parks are regulated, and safari companies must obtain “commercial use authorization” permits. They’re bound to the Park Service’s conservation mission and to follow park rules. Permitted companies must attend annual meetings, have liability insurance, meet U.S. Public Health standards for food and sanitation and ensure guides are trained in first aid and CPR. “It’s a lot more challenging of a business to get into than you would think,” Backcountry Safaris General Manager Rob Pitts said. “From a business standpoint, a lot of people think you can just get a vehicle, book some trips and drive people around, but you need that backend support.”

Road-based tour companies can pay a flat rate entrance fee each time they enter the park or an initial fee and a percentage of their gross receipts for a yearlong permit. Last year the U.S. Department of Interior proposed a steep hike in road-based commercial tour entrance fees and permit rates, which will take effect May 2019. Most revenue will fund much-needed infrastructure improvements in the park where the fees were collected. Many tour companies, particularly smaller outfits, worry the additional cost will have to be passed on to clients and will deter business. But other companies second the need for infrastructure funding and hope the fee hike will slow the industry’s frenetic growth. “I think that’s appropriate,” Matt Fagan, owner of Buffalo Roam Tours, said about the fee proposal. “Hopefully we’ll see a leveling off of growth.”

Scanning the hillside while his clients wait in the van, Vanian spots something. A pronghorn’s head, barely visible through binoculars, pokes from the grass. He hurries to set up a 50X-spotting scope so we can see the animal in greater detail. Everyone files out of the van to take a turn peering across the flats through the eyepiece. “He can see us just as well as we can see him,” Vanian says. “Pronghorn can see up to four miles.” The pronghorn turns his head toward us, huge black eyes staring. For a moment there’s the weight of a presence at the other end of the lens. It’s hard to say who is observing whom.

For most commercial wildlife tours companies, educating the public is part of the mission. Like rangers, tour guides serve as interpreters, pointing out flora, fauna, geology, ecological processes and the role of each in the ecosystem. “We do promote a great transfer of knowledge,” said Taylor Phillips, owner of Jackson Hole Eco Tour Adventures. “When we leave the office we’re doing our best to connect our visitors to the natural world and parks. It’s a more meaningful experience when they understand the ins and outs.” To lighten up the pedagogy, each anecdote is delivered with a dose of humor. Watching a nesting osprey, Vanian tells us about their adaptations for fishing, like curved talons and double-jointed wings, and their migratory habits. “Osprey mate for life, but migrate separately,” he says, “so it’s like taking separate vacations to save the marriage.”

Without political pontificating, guides also teach their clients about conservation legacy and topical issues — the wolf reintroduction and hunting, chronic wasting disease and elk feeding, mule deer migration corridors crossing highways. The depth of the discussion depends on the outfit and clientele, but one thing is an industry standard: After bringing up each side of the issue, guides generally leave it to their guests to form their own opinions. “What we do educating the public in terms of the need for conservation is apolitical,” Williams said. “We’re talking about people having great experiences and walking away with this sense of wonder that makes them want to protect public land.”

As we drive back to town, Vanian launches into a spiel on the importance of environmental stewardship. Chatter in the back of the van falls quiet. “I’m grateful there were people here over a hundred years ago who saw the value in this place,” he says. “Rather than seek private profit they chose preservation and carried the torch of conservation.” I asked him later if he talks to all of his clients about the importance of conservation. “That’s why I do what I do, to try to make a difference,” he said. “I show people something they can appreciate, so hopefully they will want to cherish it for future generations as well. Just driving people around to see the animals, where is the deeper meaning in that?” Instilling the environmental ethic doesn’t always stick. Back in the van, there’s a moment of silence once he finishes his speech. Then, a voice from the back.

“So, what can you share about eagles?” 

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, or @JHNGenviro.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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