Janet Owen interviews her longtime friend and former Chicagoan, Becky Swift, about her volunteer work in Grand Teton National Park in Jackson, Wyoming. Becky and her husband, Ted Swift, divide their time between Montecito, California and Jackson, Wyoming.
Becky, we have known one another since we were both “young marrieds” in Chicago back in the eighties. Since then, you and your husband, Ted, have raised two amazing children and have just recently welcomed your second grandchild! Congratulations!
You are definitely a woman of many talents; not only have you been a full time wife and mother, a successful residential sales agent in Montecito, and a world traveler but since I have known you, you have always had a true passion for nature photography.
Tell us about that and how you developed your passion into another passion… volunteering in Grand Teton National Park in Jackson, Wyoming as a “Wildlife Brigadier” as well as a photographer for the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve.
Janet, I am so honored and flattered that you have approached me to share an amazing thirty year journey that has landed me in Grand Teton National Park as a member of the Wildlife Brigade, a program established in 2007 and staffed primarily by volunteers that helps to protect and manage visitors and wildlife, primarily the grizzly and black bear population.
As I look back, I began this journey while living in Chicago. I was invited to spend a week with my sister who was living in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband. I packed a tiny, inexpensive camera in my bag and snapped away at the exquisite scenery and any wildlife I could find. Alaska is wild and beautiful and I wanted to capture every savory moment. When I returned to Chicago I had the film developed. After going through the many photographs, I was devastated that I did not capture the exquisite beauty that I had remembered so vividly. That Christmas, I asked Santa for a Nikon camera, and began my obsession with nature photography. On Ted’s and my next trip to Alaska, we found ourselves and my camera floating down a river with my sister and her husband in brown bear country (they are called brown bears in coastal Alaska). I had never been so petrified in my life and didn’t sleep the four nights we camped but I never saw a single bear! Once we were on the plane back to Chicago, Ted noticed I was crying. He asked what was the matter and I said,
“I want to come back and take pictures of the bears!” He laughed!
Brown bear eating salmon; McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge, Alaska
So it all started with your love of nature, Alaska and your camera?
Yes, I guess that is where this journey began but I have always loved nature and have never been one to stay indoors! Two summer trips later, Ted and I went back to Alaska. We visited Brooks Falls In Katmai National Park and the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge where we were surrounded by brown bears feeding on salmon. I took picture after picture and was completely hooked. I had combined my two passions: photographing nature and bears!
We left Chicago in 1989 and moved to Santa Barbara, California. I spent my time raising our two children, Dallas and Natalie. My camera stayed in my hand and for many years I took photography and birding classes, photographed the gorgeous coastline of California, its beautiful birds, as well as portraits of children and families. I did not return to photographing bears for several years.
How did you and your family decide to buy a home in Wyoming and find yourself volunteering in the park?
When Ted was in his twenties and moving around a lot with his company, he decided to buy a small cabin in Jackson, Wyoming. He felt he wanted to own property where he knew he would always want to visit. Smart man! Once married, every summer and most winters we would bring the family to Jackson to visit. I would lasso my children into our Ford Explorer every night after dinner in the summer and go looking for any wildlife we could find. Elk, moose, antelope, bison, deer and birds were prolific, but no bears were found! Fast forward to 2011. My children were now out of the nest and Ted and I decided to spend more time in Jackson. I now knew I could really focus on my nature photography. However, I felt the very strong need to “give back” to this wonderful community that had given so much to our family. I knew I wanted to be in the Park in some capacity but didn’t know how to take the necessary steps. I happened to be at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center and spotted a young park ranger behind a desk in her green and gray uniform. I asked her if she knew whom I might contact. She handed me a phone number and a name.
I contacted the Supervisor of the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve which had just opened to the public in 2008. We met for coffee over the Christmas holiday and she guided me through the process of “applying” for a volunteer position at the Preserve. I went through all of the steps, including being fingerprinted and selecting three people to endorse me. Janet, you were one of those people I asked!!
That’s right! I remember! It was an easy endorsement letter!
Well, I waited and waited… I heard nothing for four months… one afternoon Ted came in after getting the mail and said, “Do you remember when we waited for that thick envelope to come when the children had applied to college? Well, I am holding a huge, heavy envelope from Grand Teton National Park.” I had been accepted to be a naturalist volunteer at the LSRP! It was a dream come true!
For four years, I volunteered at the Preserve with wonderful Park employees and other volunteers. During this time, I was asked to photograph projects, the staff and the exquisite Preserve, along with performing the many other jobs associated with the volunteer position. It was during these four years that I learned more about both bear populations, in particular that grizzly bears were recolonizing their former range within Grand Teton National Park – a result of the protections afforded to them under the Endangered Species Act. Black bears would show up at the Preserve throughout the summers to feed on huckleberries and black hawthorn berries and grizzly bears were increasingly observed foraging along roads within the Park. Visitation to the Park increased substantially as well.
I was in heaven! I started hearing about a program which began in 2007 that specifically dealt with the management of the bears, both grizzly and black, along with other wildlife in the Park. Kate Wilmot, the bear management specialist for Grand Teton National Park, had organized a group of paid staff and volunteers that, throughout the summer and fall, managed the interactions between visitors and bears and provided public education about a necessary food storage program for campers within the Park. I wanted to become a part of this group called the Wildlife Brigade. My partner in crime, Mary Kathryn Clark, (who was also a volunteer at the Preserve), and I approached Kate and asked if we could be a part of this infamous group of dedicated individuals. We were invited to join!
Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve; Photo courtesy of NPS
Black bear eating black hawthorn berries; Grand Teton National Park
What is a typical day for the Wildlife Brigade?
For three years, we have happily and willingly jumped into our Park vehicle, with our volunteer uniforms intact and pressed, radios in hand and bear spray on our hips, searching for bears and visitors observing bears, known in the trade as a “bear jam”, which essentially involves photographers and visitors who have stopped in their vehicles to take photographs and view the bears foraging close to the roads. Our shifts are eight hours a day, for a minimum of two days a week. Since both grizzly and black bears now are frequently seen in Grand Teton National Park, this past summer there was rarely a shift when we did not see a bear! Every day is different; every bear sighting is different. Ironically, I rarely have an opportunity to take pictures during my shift because we are so busy! However, I simply love observing and watching these magnificent animals. I have been so blessed to have been able to combine my two passions essentially in my backyard here in Jackson.
Black Bear searching for berries; Grand Teton National Park
I know you have a healthy respect for these great animals… and as a city girl, I have to ask if you were ever afraid?
I do have a very healthy respect for these magnificent creatures. Each and every bear jam is unique and I never approach the situation without some trepidation and concern. Perhaps one of the most disconcerting bear jams I was fortunate enough to witness was early summer a couple of years ago. Two grizzly sows, each with two COYS (Cubs of the Year) were within a very concerning short distance from each other. There had to be over 150 cars and individuals
viewing and taking pictures. The Park has established the rule that visitors need to be at least 100 yards from any bear, black or grizzly, as well as wolves. It was difficult to manage the visitors with six bears near the road! I was afraid there could be a conflict between the visitors and the bears. All turned out well, but the jam lasted several hours and there were some tense moments for everyone.
Grizzly Bear; Grand Teton National Park
Becky, you have inspired me to take a trip to visit our beautiful National Parks. Could you leave us with one piece of advice when visiting our treasured national resources?
Every visitor that enters any of our incredible National Parks has to understand that the Park is a natural resource and the natural habitat for all the wildlife within its boundaries. It is their home, not ours. We must understand that it is our responsibility to respect and protect these natural resources. It is also important to understand and follow the Parks’ rules and regulations, including maintaining the established distances when in the presence of wildlife, especially grizzly and black bears. Another critical message that Park employees and volunteers share with the visitors is NEVER, EVER FEED A BEAR. Unfortunately, if a bear is fed it becomes a danger within the Park and must be removed and most likely euthanized. Our National Parks are gifts to us and we must protect them and all the wildlife that live within their boundaries. The park rangers and volunteers who work in the Parks are trained to educate the visitors so that they can have a memorable, safe experience while visiting the Parks. It is so important to respect these individuals and the hard work that they do each and every day.
Schwabacher Landing; Grand Teton National Park
So Becky, what’s up this summer?
This summer I plan to return to Wyoming in the early spring. The grizzlies begin to emerge from their dens after hibernating all winter in late March. Females with new cubs emerge sometime in May. I’d like to observe and photograph if I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity. Regardless, if I don’t get a single shot, just being in the Park will renew my spirit and prepare me for the summer’s adventures!
Female Grizzly Bear; Grand Teton National Park
Thank you, Becky! You’ve certainly inspired me! You embody that old saying that if you truly love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life!
You’ll absolutely love it out there, Janet! I’ll have you carrying a can of bear spray in no time! (By the way, I have never had to use bear spray!) And you will fall in love with these INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL animals, as well as the natural splendor of the breathtaking scenery of Grand Teton National Park! I can promise you that!
Black Bear eating black hawthorn berries; Grand Teton National Park
Cathedral Group Turnout; Grand Teton National Park
Mount Moran at Oxbow Bend; Grand Teton National Park
Brown bear: McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge; Alaska
Two brown bears; McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge; Alaska
LAURANCE S. ROCKEFELLER CENTER; Photo courtesy of NPS
ALL OTHER IMAGES: Photo courtesy of Becky Swift