It's just past suppertime on a sublime summer evening in the Wild West, and traffic on this rural highway leading toward Willow Flats, an area in the central part of Grand Teton National Park, is at a standstill. Like paparazzi staking out a starlet, photographers line the roadside, clutching formidable camera lenses. Tourists pour from cars, some climbing onto roofs to gain a better vantage.
More magnetic even than the backdrop of the Tetons, the cause of this commotion is a mother grizzly bear and three cubs. Right before vacationers' eyes, she is teaching her offspring how to hunt elk calves.
"These aren't just any bears," explains Thomas Mangelsen, a local nature photographer in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "They might be the most famous grizzlies alive today on the planet. For all these people, catching a glimpse of them is the thrill of a lifetime."
If there's a hard lesson from this summer's vacation season, though, it's that humans and bears don't necessarily mix. Here to preserve some semblance of order amid the threat of pandemonium (on the human side, at least) is a special legion called the Grand Teton Wildlife Brigade.
Their mission: keep humans, bruins, and other animals from harm – often from one another. Never have the citizen "brigaders" played a more vital role than they have this summer, says Grand Teton ranger Kate Wilmot, now that Grand Teton National Park's roadside grizzlies have become global sensations.
"We've gone from a somewhat chaotic atmosphere the last couple of years to a completely chaotic one now," says Ms. Wilmot, noting that social media have helped to spread the bears' fame. "My official title is 'bear management specialist,' but the real challenge is managing the behavior of people."
The brigade was created in 2007 when a grizzly sow named "399" – a numeric reference bestowed upon her by researchers – showed up along the national park's roadsides with three yearling cubs. She and her brood promptly attracted an international following – including Facebook fans and travelers making trips here just to see her.
Then came a bigger surprise. This spring 399 and another grizzly called "610" – 399's 5-year-old daughter – each emerged from her den with cubs. No. 399 had triplets at her side for the second time in half a decade, and 610 herself had twins in tow.
Wilmot oversees a corps of 16 volunteers who work until the snow flies. The youngest is Justin Schwabedissen, an Idaho college student. Reg and Laurie Wofford are retired septuagenarians from Hawaii.
"We're here because we love the parks," says Mrs. Wofford. "The payment we receive isn't money. It's the satisfaction of being able to do something meaningful."
Mama grizzlies, she notes, are notoriously protective of their offspring. Earlier this summer in Yellowstone National Park, a hiker was fatally mauled after surprising a mother bear and cubs along a trail. That incident, combined with two occasions in which Bear 610 charged Grand Teton tourists who got too close, prompted park officials to impose new viewing guidelines, mandating that tourists venture no closer than 100 yards.
"If the brigaders weren't there and wildlife watching were allowed to turn into a free-for-all, we'd have injured humans and bears, dangerous situations with motorists, and people throwing food out their car windows," says Wilmot. "It would be a mess."