Harassing wildlife isn't just a national park problem

A mountain goat on Mount Timpanogos on Aug. 9. Disruption of wildlife and their natural habitat is increasingly becoming a problem. (At Home in Wild Places)

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MOUNT TIMPANOGOS — Following numerous widely publicized cases of tourists petting bison or crowding mother grizzlies at Yellowstone National Park, it would be very easy for people to conclude that the harassment of wildlife is a national park problem. But having returned a few times to Utah's legendary Mount Timpanogos this summer, I've been reminded that wildlife harassment is a problem everywhere.

Towering over Salt Lake, Utah and Heber valleys, and surrounded by colleges and universities, there's little wonder why "Timp" is so iconic and popular among Utahns and college students, in general. But, as one of Utah's most prized and popular wilderness areas, Mount Timpanogos continues to labor under heavy and frequently harmful and destructive use.

While recently exploring this majestic peak, I've gathered loads of trash, dodged human waste and discarded used toilet paper, gathered half a dozen flashlights and headlamps and who knows how many candy wrappers and plastic bottles.

But more than the litter, what has really stood out to me this summer is the general, wanton disregard for the mountain, other people and the state's wildlife. I've witnessed illegal operation of drones and small, manned aircraft well below the 2,000 feet above ground level wilderness guideline buzzing the mountain's slopes, summits and basin.

Time and time again, I've watched large groups of hikers, some exceeding the 14-person limit, shortcutting trails and tearing down a steep slope, damaging official walkways, ripping up vegetation and turning an otherwise lush mountainside into single or multiple long, muddy or dusty skid-marks, all to save themselves perhaps 30 seconds of travel time.

I witnessed a group of (I assume) college students crowd a mother mountain goat and her kid; one individual even trying to pet or grab the two goats. And when the goats retreated, he then gave chase. While I failed to capture the harassment on video, the video included in this article shows the same goats involved in the incident and the glorious but threatened landscape that they — and so many people — depend on.

For someone who has seen everything from bears to pikas on this mountain, this recent chapter of wildlife harassment has been a sobering reminder of challenges faced by forest, park and wildlife managers who are charged with protecting the land and wildlife, while also maintaining public access to our priceless wilderness areas and natural resources.

It's a dilemma faced not only by the most famous of national parks, but all of Utah's wild landscapes, as well.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Capt. Brandon Baron highlighted the potential harm inflicted on both wild animals and people when visitors harass wildlife.

"You're disrupting their feeding, you're putting undue pressure on them. (In this case) there was a kid with them — this is a young animal who's not as strong as the adults are," Baron said, adding, "the stress from (harassment) can go anywhere from just scaring them to potentially putting them in a state where they might perish."

Knowing that harassment can potentially be fatal for wild animals, it's perhaps unsurprising that the state code used to prosecute wildlife harassment is the very same state code used to prosecute poaching, according to Baron.

"Harass is part what we call 'take' in Utah state code. To take means to hunt, pursue, harass, capture, catch, possess and so on," he said. "So, under the Utah state enforcement code, it is illegal to 'take' (wildlife) without permission."

Violations of this statute qualify as a class B misdemeanor, punishable by fines in the thousands of dollars and, in some cases, jail time.

More than the harm to animals and legal perils for perpetrators, harassing wildlife is also harmful to people, generally.

"Obviously, a mother with young … could attack a person. But besides the animal harming us, the social aspect of it is that now people are harassing them, chasing them. and it's interrupting other peoples' ability to enjoy the outdoors," said Baron.

Utah's natural beauty is perhaps the state's most recognizable and cherished hallmark. It is consistently listed as one of the things people love most about the state.

But Utah's natural splendor is not guaranteed and is easily marred, damaged or ruined by a surprisingly small number of people. Even a small number of visitors can easily and quickly spoil a place like Timpanogos by failing to respectfully and responsibly enjoy the mountain.

It's haunting food for thought for those who treasure Utah's wild spaces, especially as the states's population continues to surge.

Utah's natural treasures are caught in a not-so-metaphorical vice as urban centers, development and use expand and intensify — squeezing Utah's resources and multiplying abuses across Utah's landscapes.

The Beehive State's iconic mountains, deserts, canyons and wildlife have no perceptible voice of their own. As pressures on natural resources surge the question must be asked: "Who will preserve Utah, if not Utahns?"

You may find in your travels that appreciating and posting about Utah's landscapes and wildlife is not enough to save them, and if shared irresponsibly on social media can add to the the harm being done. Public lands and wildlife managers are largely dependent on regular people to self-regulate themselves and their companions, as well as document and report violations to the proper authorities.

If you witness wildlife harassment, Baron advises that you do not confront perpetrators but try and capture the event on video, as well as any identifying information that can aid state wildlife law enforcement, adding, "license plates are gold."

The process for reporting wildlife harassment is exactly the same as reporting poaching. The fastest and most efficient method is calling Utah's UTip poaching hotline, 1-800-662-3337, but reports can be submitted through the DWR's Law Enforcement app, text message or by submitting a tip online.

Tips are anonymous, and even if you are unable to provide photo or video evidence, Baron says you can still submit a witness statement.

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Mike is a writer, filmmaker and public speaker, who, along with his wife Michelle, owns and manages At Home in Wild Spaces Films, a film studio that produces informational outdoor adventure media and resources. Mike graduated from BYU with a degree in film and animation, and occasionally writes about entertainment and current events.


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