Friday, May 8, 2009

Bust a Biker, Save a Bear

A couple of times while I worked in Yellowstone I had encounters with people bicycling on the trails. The first time was my first season in the park. Another ranger and I stumbled across a group of four young guys riding in the Bechler area. He was a law enforcement ranger who had made the horseback journey from the South Entrance to Bechler more than a few times. I was along as an afterthought, a sidekick, insurance against some accident that might befall my leader, Dave.

I rode Jackpot, Dave rode Harvey and we led one pack horse with our gear. It was a two day journey over to the Bechler Ranger Station and two days back. We set out in the last part of October. Nights were cold but the days warmed up nicely and the scenery was spectacular with the turning leaves. Our purpose was boundary patrol. Elk poachers were known to operate on the south boundary; they would cross into the park, shoot unsuspecting trophy elk and transport them back into the National Forest. The Park Service actually knew who the poachers were and where they lived in Idaho Falls, but they had to catch them in action. Mere suspicions don’t play out too well in front of the magistrate.

So there we were, two rangers, one armed with his service pistol, riding the boundary looking for a bunch of renegade hunters. We also looked for clues to their presence, like some gut piles, or drag marks, or illegal salt licks or camps, or hearing gunshots or seeing a group of ravens feasting on remains. At times we followed the South boundary, and at times we bushwhacked through the forest or across beautiful meadows.

We camped out in a "backcountry cabin", that without exaggeration, was the size of a small tent. You could sit on the cot and cook dinner on the camp stove. At the end of the second day we forded the Bechler River and put our horses in the corral at the Bechler Ranger Station. Ann-Marie, the Bechler district ranger made a fabulous meal, and we drank some wine and beer and went to the bunkhouse to sleep.

We headed out in the morning, fording the Bechler River again, and headed back towards the South Entrance. We stopped for lunch beside the trail to Union Falls about two or three miles from the boundary. We were sitting on a downed tree near the trail, eating our sandwiches, drinking our Kool-Aid, when a mountain biker silently rode by. We were all equally surprised.

Why no mountain biking in Yellowstone? The answer is BEARS. It is highly possible while biking on the trails that you would surprise a bear just the way the biker surprised us having lunch. The difference is, a bear when surprised can be unpredictable. You can’t outrun a bear, even on a bike. Not on flat ground and not going uphill. Maybe riding downhill. Maybe. If a bear’s response to a fleeing biker is to give chase, and the bear catches the biker and kills or mauls him, what happens? The bear has to be removed from the ecosystem for fear that this bear has learned a really bad habit. How do you remove a bear from the ecosystem? You kill him or trap him and move him somewhere more remote than Yellowstone. But those habitats are already occupied by bears and it usually doesn’t work out. The net result is generally a dead bear. And the second reason is the damage to the frequently wet and muddy trails in Yellowstone. But in any case, mountain biking on Yellowstone trails is illegal.

Dave stopped the biker and began talking with him. Soon, three others rode up and Dave asked me to stay with them and keep them from exchanging information. He talked to each separately. I was Watson and he was Holmes. It turned out that they each gave conflicting and contradictory evidence. One said they didn’t know they were in the park. Another said they all knew they were in the park, but didn’t know bikes were illegal; they hadn’t seen anything stating it was illegal. Another said they knew they were in the park, knew it was illegal, had seen the signs, they just didn’t think they would encounter rangers. The last guy said kids from his college in Rexburg, Idaho, did it all the time. Dave gave the two biggest liars $30 citations and let the two more honest guys off the hook. Dave turned them around and asked them to walk their bikes to the boundary. I’m sure they walked their bikes no more than 50 yards.

We never saw any sign of poachers but we felt pretty good knowing we’d busted the ringleaders of this criminal bicycle activity and they would spread the word back at their school.

About eight years later I was walking into Heart Lake with my crew of weed killers and saw bicycle tracks on the trail. We got pretty excited about busting these wanton lawbreakers and radioed Grant Patrol to alert them of the possibility of citing these miscreants when they got back out to the trailhead. We followed the tracks right to the Heart Lake cabin and we were expecting to see them at any moment. We’d reported our progress on the radio and we were ready to make a bust. My crew was excited to be a part of this fabulous law enforcement roundup of illegal bikers. Just as we arrived at the cabin we got word that two other rangers had brought in a new kayak and canoe by pulling them on attached bicycle wheels. Needless to say, we were devastated.


Anonymous said...

I am always amazed at how detailed your memories are! I'm lucky if I can remember what day it is and what I had for lunch!

I'm afraid that the evidence indicates that I will be the one with Alzheimers in the future...and you will be spared! Let's hope I'm wrong about me and right about you.

I love your stories...they are so different from the way I've spent my time. If you keep on writing...I'll keep on reading.

Have a good weekend. Luke

Harley said...

I really enjoy your Yellowstone adventures. Keep remembering!