Smartphone Apps Pinpoint Wildlife Sightings in Yellowstone, But Is That a Good Idea?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 10, 2012 12

If you’re able to visit Yellowstone National Park when it’s at its least crowded, count yourself lucky. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Yellowstone National Park has often been called the “Serengeti of the North,” and there’s nothing more exciting than venturing into its backcountry or famed Lamar and Hayden Valleys in hopes of coming across a herd of bison, pronghorn or a pack of wolves. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to visit the park when it’s at its least crowded, there’s the added thrill of being the only one—or one of just a handful of people—to view such a sight at that particular time.

Those times, however, may soon become more rare. New apps are now enabling visitors to enter in the exact spots where they are currently seeing animals in Yellowstone. So instead of hoping for a lucky happenstance as we have in the past, we can just check our smartphones and rush to the places where we know some wildlife action is presently occurring.

But are these apps truly good for the wildlife, for the park rangers and for us?

Smartphone apps are meant to increase your chances of having wildlife sightings. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Ensuring a wildlife sighting

For several years now, various websites have been keeping track of animal sightings in Yellowstone. For example, on the Yellowstone Wildlife website not long ago, a message had warned of grizzlies feeding on a bison carcass near the Yellowstone River Trail. Given that last summer a grizzly killed a tourist in Yellowstone, up-to-the-minute updates such as this one could save lives.

However, the new smartphone apps are meant not as much to warn people away as to increase their chances of having many more animal sightings than what would typically occur by chance on any given trip to the park. It makes sense that if you spend money to travel to Yellowstone, you’d like to ensure that you make the most of your visit. The sheer enormity of the park can be overwhelming, so knowing where to spend your limited time in such a huge place is undeniably helpful.

One such new app, called Where’s a Bear, promises news of “up-to-the-second animal sightings” in Yellowstone. And the Yellowstone Wildlife website recently began offering a similar app, YNP Wildlife. Even when your device is without service, the application will store all your sighting information and upload it automatically when service is regained. It will also check for new sightings that have been posted.

The new apps mean there’s almost no excuse anymore not to have several wildlife sightings in Yellowstone National Park.

Questioning the safety

But not everybody thinks making wildlife-sighting information readily retrievable by smartphone is a good idea. As it is, people who stop roadside because they notice other people have parked to look at something can make a small crowd quickly grow to one numbering in the hundreds. People often sideswipe each other in these circumstances. And grizzly bear sightings at such spots are especially challenging for park rangers, who have to both direct traffic and keep people a safe distance away.

Some say new apps pose no real threat because animals aren’t likely to hang around just so another visitor can get there. ©John T. Andrews

On a recent trip to Yellowstone, I, too, stopped when I saw a group of people roadside. It turned out that a black bear with her two cubs was hiding behind a log. After about five minutes, I decided to leave since there was hardly any room to see anything over the tens of tripods and stacked vehicles. I preferred to take my chances by going farther down the road to find a more isolated spot.

Some would argue that the new apps pose no real threat because a bear, moose, elk, bald eagle or wolf isn’t likely to hang around a place just so another visitor can get there. On the other hand, a pack of wolves that has killed a bison might remain at a site for days while it feeds on the carcass.

Park personnel also worry that if these new apps significantly increase the hordes at wildlife sightings, animals could become too comfortable around crowds. A grizzly bear, for instance, that is too habituated to people is even more dangerous than the average bear. The question becomes: Are these new apps going to be bad for the wildlife? For the park rangers? For park visitors?

Not everyone is jumping on the “app wagon.” According to the Associated Press, there are those, such as wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen who lives in Jackson Hole, just south of Yellowstone, who have been watching a popular grizzly in Grand Teton National Park over the past few years. The grizzly recently emerged from hibernation with her three cubs.

Mangelsen said he didn’t rush off to share the news online.

Do you think wildlife-spotting apps will enhance your national park visits, or will they have a negative impact on your experiences?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. google August 2, 2014 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    Great article.

  2. James Mettler April 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Hello Candice,
    The wild life and rangers have to deal with the public on a large scale presently. Vistors can enjoy the fun the thrill of bumping in to wild life which makes it much more exciting when you bump in to a moose, buffalo or wolf.
    We all need to respect the wild life and enjoy a relaxd atmosphere and not get caught up with the Iphone for once and just enjoy what god gave us.

  3. Phillip July 15, 2012 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Hi Candice, I think that part of the excitement of seeing animals in the wild is to go looking for them. I was fortunate enough to go to Yellowstone in late April/early May when there are few visitors to the park and seeing wolves hunt early in the morning or bears coming out of hibernation (have never seen so many bears ever in the wild) will stay with me forever.

    Apps for Smart Phones to find animals remind me of North Americans going on safari in smaller, expensive, game parks in Africa and then wanting to tick off everything on the list when really they could go to Animal Kingdom in Orlando and save an awful lot of time and money.

    Animals are meant to be wild and elusive, it is part of the thrill to travel for hours or even days and then spot what you were looking for. I recall that although Wolves, bears and bison were high up on my list to see the sight of a Wild Great Grey Owl was incredible. The mountain fox that came to play in the snow when I was just walking along the road was just brilliant. That is spotting wildlife.

  4. Drew Gilmour July 12, 2012 at 6:11 am - Reply

    Part of the enjoyment of travel is the chance you will see something great, New smart technology spoils that sense of adventure, sure cell phones are great for park rangers during search and rescue operations (SAR) but maybe the next time you venture into the wilderness turn it off and put it in you pack for emergencies and enjoy the scenery! CR#107

  5. Antony Lynam July 11, 2012 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    I work in Southeast Asia where people go to parks but have a slim chance of seeing large animals because populations of high commercial value species such as tigers, Asian elephants, rhinos, deer and other species have been decimated by hunting. If such an app was developed for our parks, it could easily lead to animals being poached since park ranger numbers on the ground are thin, and they would not always be able to respond to reports of animals being seen by providing adequate protection. From a tourist perspective I much prefer not knowing exactly when and where I will see wildlife. Providing exact locations of animal sightings means the fun is taken out of wildlife watching.

  6. Debra July 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    NOOO!!! Next thing you know, there will be a companion app to shoot them with! As much as I think it’s great for nature lovers to have the opportunity to share the info, in the wrong hands it could mean death for those beautiful animals. Let’s not make it easy for them!

  7. Erin Browning July 11, 2012 at 6:32 am - Reply

    I agree with Gerry’s comments but have a couple more. I do believe there is some potential harm to the animals by visitor crowding in their vicinity. I also believe the more animals are around humans the more ‘friendly’ they can become, which can be dangerous to all involved.

    On another note, however, perhaps the rangers can use the apps to their own advantage. They will now have extra eyes to alert them to wildlife locations, and they’ll be able to get to these locations faster to protect visitors and animals alike.

  8. Chris E. July 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    This was a good article. I enjoyed reading it… as for the question (are these apps a good idea) I think it’s a little to soon to tell, remember any tech is only as good as the people using it… and while it may guide the masses, it could be short lived if it’s found to be unreliable. Can you see rushing from one spot to another just to see the crowd leaving a spot because too many people spooked the game? Time will be the test to see if it is useful or not. Then there are the people that wouldn’t use these apps just because they are there to be on their own and would avoid the crowds at all cost, so these apps may be useful to show someone were not to go. I guess time will tell.

  9. Gerry Cariou July 10, 2012 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    If we are to protect wildlife and national Parks there is a cost to that. To justify public expenditures on the Parks and wildlife conservation, people have to “value” the experience. The best way to get people behind funding for the parks is to expose them to the wildlife and the scenery. While I appreciate the points you make, the more people see wildlife the more they value the experience and will support preservation and conservation.

    So as long as there are some basic controls, i don’t see a problem for the phone apps, people want to see wildlife I don’t see anything wrong with an app that tells them where they are at any one time – as long as they are not calving or are in a sensitive time with their young.

    We need to protect the wildlife as the main concern, but I think we can do that and still help people see more of them – they will leave the park with indelible memories of their trip and the sightings and will support funding for the parks, for wildlife conservation etc. Yes, the potential for a bad encounter increases but I think it is an acceptable risk. We should really consult with the Park staff to ensure things don’t get out of hand and try to develop some “ground rules” for people to follow – such as education on what to do and what not to do, not to get out of car etc. but I don’t see an issue with these apps that is something to worry too much about.

  10. Harry July 10, 2012 at 10:11 am - Reply

    I believe it takes away the benefits of a trip to a place like Yellowstone. I believe the reason for exploring a new place is just that the exploration and unplanned personal experience one gets from randomly experiencing a new place. You go to see what you can see. Slowing down and taking the time to notice things you would otherwise pass by. The app giving you information as to the location of a species of interest is undoubtedly useful but what is lost (passed over) in the rush to see. The point of the parks is to slow down, experience, and take in and experience you cannot get in our everyday (rush rush) lives. If you want to rush between animal viewings I suggest a zoo, the magnificent background is unnecessary. The inherent goodness or badness of an app is irrelevant. I think it is more a reflection of the rush rush me me now now attitude of the world we live in.

  11. HELEN ILTIS July 10, 2012 at 8:25 am - Reply

    Candy, I don’t have any aps..Can you imagine if people start miss directing eager aps chasers ??
    Thanks always for taking us to the Bears and Balugas ..


  12. Eszter July 10, 2012 at 5:15 am - Reply

    Hi Candice,
    It sounds like animals turn into a must see highlights of your trip. Just another photo taken of a “church” or a famous building, just to tick a box on your travel itenerary.
    People will loose the “sacredness” of connecting to another form of being and nature. It is like opening a packet of instant noodles – you did not “work” for it, did not prepare your meal, it has been prepacked almost predigested for you…
    We want everything instant, we have no time for anything, we can not wait and be awarded with something wonderful, something that we would most likely appreciate more than an instant fix. I choose not to go along with this.
    I think in this case technology is a hindrance in wildlife tourism. It would be useful for park staff, research management.

    Best regards,

Leave A Response »