Looking for bears? There's an app for that

New cell phone apps can help tourists find a bison, wolf or grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. But rangers are afraid this could increase the danger for both the sight-seeing families, and the wildlife themselves.

Tom Mangelsen/AP
People now can use their phones to find out where somebody has just seen a bison, wolf or grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. The new apps take wildlife viewing to a new level but not without raising concerns for the well-being of wildlife, park rangers and the tourists themselves.

Family vacations to our nation's beautiful national parks are always great ways to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of America's finest flora and fauna. But some wildlife enthusiasts are using new technology to ensure an optimal vacation experience, with potentially unsafe consequences. Contrary to the notion that vacations are best enjoyed "unplugged,"  if you're hoping to catch a glimpse of wolves, grizzly bears and bison at Yellowstone National Park, the best place to be on the lookout may soon be a cellphone.

New smartphone apps enable people to pinpoint where they've recently seen critters in Yellowstone. People who drive to those locations can — at least in theory — improve their odds of seeing wildlife compared to the typical tourist's dumb luck.

One app called Where's a Bear promises "up to the second" animal sightings in Yellowstone. Recently a website called Yellowstone Wildlife began offering a similar app. 

Websites long have kept track of animal sightings in Yellowstone. Already this spring the Yellowstone Wildlife site shows signs of life: Mule deer near park headquarters at Mammoth, bison in the area of a landmark petrified tree.

A message on the site warns of grizzlies feeding on a bison carcass near the Yellowstone River Trail. The statement relayed from the National Park Service could save a life. Grizzly attacks killed two tourists in Yellowstone last summer.

But not everybody thinks that making a lot of wildlife sighting information readily retrievable by phone is a hot idea. As it is, the crowds that stop to gawk at roadside wildlife in Yellowstone can grow to hundreds of people, pointed out Vicky Kraft, of Pine Mountain, California, who maintains a Facebook group for Yellowstone.

Grizzlies are especially challenging for park rangers who have to both direct traffic and keep people a safe distance away.

"It's crazy. There's no parking. People sideswipe each other because they're looking at the bear," Kraft said Monday. 

Wildlife becoming too comfortable around people is another concern. A grizzly habituated to people is even more dangerous than your average bear.

"I think there's a responsibility that a person should have if they really like Yellowstone to say, 'Gee, is this going to be bad for the animals? Is it bad for the ranger? Is it bad for the park?' And I think when you look at a situation with that app, the answer would have to be yes," Kraft said.

Attempts to reach the app developers through their websites Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.

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