Jess Erwin Saves Bears at Grand Teton National Park
A former teacher forged a career in Wyoming educating visitors about wildlife.
Bald eagles soar over clear creeks while bison graze among wildflowers at Grand Teton National Park. It’s easy to see why conservationists wanted to preserve the 310,000 acres in northwestern Wyoming.
Snow-capped mountains and a landscape full of trees and trails attract visitors of all ages and experience levels who roam freely around the park.
Bears roam freely, too.
Jess Erwin ’05 is there to make sure people don’t meet the wildlife.
The volunteer coordinator and String Lake volunteer supervisor carries a radio and bear spray, which seem like slim defenses against a mama bear.
About 600 grizzlies live in the Yellowstone-Teton area. The mammals can weigh between 300 and 700 pounds and take down an elk for dinner. But sometimes they just want to cross a road.
Erwin said she was expecting a quiet summer in 2020, assuming people wouldn’t want to be out and about during a pandemic. But visits to the park skyrocketed. Stir-crazy parents brought their kids to Grand Teton to camp and swim in String Lake, which saw more than 4,000 visitors a day.
Inexperienced visitors equal new threats to the wildlife population. Just as breaking Fido of begging for table scraps is difficult, so is managing a bear who has discovered that humans carry food.
Bears who have found food rewards, as Erwin calls them, are relocated about 40 miles from their capture point. But if you found yourself 40 miles from home, you’d probably find your way back. Bears have the same homing instinct.
Erwin said her goal is to educate park visitors about food storage and safety so everyone can enjoy Grand Teton, which was established as a national park in 1929.
“I’m obsessed with bears,” she said. “When you see your first bear in the wild — people are able to see bears from their cars just driving around the mountains here — it’s a pretty special experience.”
Before her boots touched Wyoming soil, Erwin was a teacher who enjoyed decorating her classroom with an outdoor theme.
For eight years she taught at Watauga Elementary in Texas, first teaching all subjects in third grade, then moving to fifth grade so she could focus on math and science.
“I decorated my classroom as a national park just because I’ve always been obsessed with the outdoors,” she said. “The kids loved my classroom because I had animal pelts and antlers and just all sorts of weird dead stuff everywhere.”
The Title I school received a REAL School Gardens grant that transformed a once unsightly concrete atrium into a living interactive classroom. Students and teachers planted a butterfly garden and vegetables.
The grant provided funds for the school’s principal and two teachers to visit Grand Teton for a week during summer 2008 and attend the Teton Science School. The principal invited Erwin so she could learn more ways to bring the outdoors into the classroom.
“We were in the national park and I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to figure out a way to spend my summers off from teaching out here,’ ” Erwin said. “That whole next year I just researched how I can spend my summer vacation.”
She found the National Park Service’s Teacher Ranger Teacher program, an extended professional development opportunity that allows teachers to work alongside national park rangers during the summer. She included photos of her classroom in her application.
From 2009 to 2012, Erwin split her years between Watauga Elementary and Grand Teton.
During the summers, Erwin lived in park housing just outside of Moose, Wyoming, in the Jackson Hole valley. Her cabin lacked potable water and Wi-Fi.
“It was definitely a change from living on South Drive by TCU,” Erwin said. “But I loved it, and I always asked for the same cabin each year.”
Fort Worthians may share a yard with squirrels, but Erwin shared hers with elk and bears.
“It made me a phenomenal teacher because I was bringing back everything, all my experiences, from my summer in the national park working with bears and moose and giving ranger talks,” she said. “The kids absolutely loved it — and these are kids living in Watauga, Texas, who hadn’t even been to the Fort Worth Zoo.”
Erwin was committed to her students. She gained English as a Second Language certification. She started an after-school art club and coordinated the campus spelling bee.
Administrators took notice. In 2011, Erwin was named the Watauga Elementary Teacher of the Year. She was the school district’s Touch of Class award recipient for three consecutive years. She was also nominated for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
In 2013, the federal government cut funding for the Grand Teton visitor center, where Erwin worked after the Teacher Ranger Teacher program concluded. She assumed her summers in Wyoming were over.
But a vacant park ranger/wildlife management position that specialized in bears caught her eye. The only downside: The job required a six-month commitment.
The principal in Watauga had asked Erwin to apply to lead the new science labs the Birdville Independent School District was building. She was the natural pick.
But the mountains were calling.
“That was a hard year,” she said. “I felt like I had finally become really good at my profession, but I knew I wanted to be out here [in Grand Teton].”
Erwin resigned from her teaching position and moved 1,200 miles to the western edge of Wyoming to be a park ranger.
The Bear Necessities
Grand Teton National Park is home to black and grizzly bears, moose, bison, elk and pronghorn, as well as numerous amphibians, fish, nonvenomous snakes and more than 300 species of birds.
Being a park ranger is a seasonal gig. Staffers work until bears hibernate for the winter and then lose their housing.
Erwin’s mother didn’t think the Denison, Texas, native would last one winter in Wyoming. But, determined to stay, she taught at a ski school in Jackson Hole.
Volunteer positions, seasonal internships and temporary positions are plentiful at the national park, but permanent positions are scarce.
“I just thought, ‘I’m in my 30s now — I can’t be moving every six months. That’s not sustainable,’ ” Erwin said.
To get her foot in the door, she applied for a permanent job working directly for the superintendent of the national park, David Vela, as an entry-level administrative assistant.
Transcribing meeting minutes and organizing files wasn’t what Erwin had in mind when she moved away from her family. But after establishing a rapport, she told Vela about her solution for the bear problem at String Lake. She asked to start a volunteer crew that would talk to park visitors about proper food storage and other tips for bear awareness.
“There’s a saying out here that a fed bear is a dead bear,” Erwin said. “I was just so tired of these bears dying because people just didn’t know better. I think that’s where my education background came in handy.”
Once a bear learns that the presence of humans equals the presence of food, it may become aggressive toward people to separate them from the food. Bears usually practice avoidance, Erwin said, but when humans are irresponsible and leave their belongings out, bears follow their noses.
Vela told Erwin that he didn’t have funding for her initiative but to give it a try. She piloted the String Lake bear education program in 2016.
Saving bears quickly became Erwin’s platform. Her program was successful: No bears were removed or euthanized during its first three years. In 2019, one bear was relocated after inviting itself to an after-hours fried chicken feast.
The Lakers, as Erwin calls her crew of volunteers at String Lake, include people with varied backgrounds, from college students to retired CEOs.
“One of the things that I’ve always admired about Jess is her ability to work with all types of people,” said Lynn Apel, a Laker who has volunteered with Erwin for five years. “She’s great at knowing which people can work together best and which people are good at various tasks. She’s extremely good at that.”
As volunteer coordinator for the park, Erwin oversees 30 volunteers, including the Lakers, a bike patrol, wildlife brigade and river rafting crew. She also works with citizen scientists.
“One of our main jobs is to keep the bears and the people both safe and separated,” said Apel, who also volunteers for the wildlife brigade. “Jess has done a lot of very positive things and really made some big improvements.”
In May 2020, when the park’s famous grizzly bear 399 emerged from winter hibernation with four cubs — an unusual feat for a 24-year-old bear — Apel helped break up a bear jam, or a crowd of park visitors who spotted a bear and stopped to take pictures.
“Jess is probably one of the best people in the park when it comes to managing bears,” Apel said. “She will appear at a bear jam or will appear at String Lake and she’ll move a bear like a pro.”
Erwin trains volunteers in safe methods for dealing with bears. They all carry bear spray. Volunteers also learn CPR and first aid.
One summer, a non-English-speaking child got separated from his family. Erwin coordinated a search group under radio control, found the boy and consoled him despite the language barrier.
“She’s a remarkable person,” Apel said. “She is a natural leader.”
The park’s foundation now uses donations to Erwin’s program to purchase bear boxes, which are lockers that keep food and things like sunscreen from bears, and a mobile visitor center.
Expanding her bear education and protection program to other lakes in the park, such as Jenny Lake, where the chicken-loving bear had been growing curious, is on Erwin’s agenda.
“She is a natural outdoor enthusiast,” Apel said. “When it comes to wildlife, she’s very good.”
Erwin now lives in the park and rides her bicycle the quarter mile to headquarters.
“Living in a national park is like a dream come true,” she said. “Every day I look at the mountains and I cannot believe I get to live here. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I do not say that.”