Jeremy Barnum is chief spokesperson for America’s National Park Service and he’s never happier than when gazing up at a mountain or watching bears catch fish at the edge of a river. Here he tells us about tranquiliser guns, dangers of feeding animals and why he was in Dubai recently.
What does the average park ranger do?
Traditionally when people think of a park ranger they think of someone that serves as a guide for visitors who come to the park, where we help them to understand the context and the story and why that place is important — and that is an important part of what a park ranger does. But people in the National Park Service do a lot more — apart from those who do admin work, we have pilots, biologists and firefighters.
They must be pretty spread out, right?
Sure — the National Park Service has 418 different sites across the United States spanning a dozen different time zones, each one is very different and very diverse.
How might a ranger be expected to protect the wildlife?
In Yellowstone, for example, there are two types of bears — grizzly and black — and if people feed them, then they become more likely to approach humans for food and there’s a greater chance that they might harm one of our visitors. So one of the ways we try to prevent that — because if a bear does harm a visitor then it sometimes doesn’t end well for the bear either — is that we do safety and public awareness campaigns to help people understand that while they think they might be doing something fun by feeding wildlife, in the end you might be endangering that animal’s life.
Do rangers help injured animals?
Depends. If an animal is injured through natural causes, then that’s kind of part of what happens in nature, right? And so as much as we would like to help, for the greater good we have to let nature run its course. But in cases where an animal has been harmed partly because of human intrusion into their ecosystem, we do what we can to help them. For instance, there are bears that have become accustomed to human food. We move them to wildlife sanctuaries so they can live safely.
How did you get into it?
I wanted to be a park ranger my whole life. I somehow went in a different direction where I was a diplomat for a while, but I found myself going to national parks whenever I travelled and every time I came back to the US, I would go back to our own national parks — and I realised that it was something I was passionate about and that I wanted to devote my career to. I now get to wake up every morning and talk to people about America’s national parks and it’s a great privilege. No two days are the same.
Do park rangers have the same powers as the police?
Some do. We have law enforcement park rangers that are federal law enforcement officers and in many cases they are armed.
How frequently does the old tranquiliser gun come out?
I don’t know if I would use the word ‘frequently’. In some of the parks, many of the animals tend to stay in the backcountry areas where they’re less likely to encounter humans. So for that reason we don’t have to do that sort of thing as often as you might think.
Of all the animals out there, which is the most dangerous?
So often the danger that’s encountered by wildlife is down to human error, where people have tried to feed an animal or gotten too close to it — that’s a big issue we have. Bison in Yellowstone National Park, for instance, are big, powerful animals that are generally fairly docile, but when agitated they can move fast — and with that kind of weight and speed, physics does not really rule in your favour as a human who is being charged by one. So bison are definitely up there.
If you had to hide yourself in a national park and never be seen again, which would you choose?
That’s a great question. I would probably have to hide myself in Glacier National Park (in Montana’s Rocky Mountains). I’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry there and there’s something extraordinary about it with its steep canyons that have been carved out by the glaciers, lots of wildlife, and many different ecosystems. During the span of a one-day hike you might see 20-30 degree Fahrenheit differences in temperature.
Have you ever had reason to come to Dubai?
I was just there recently on a US State Department speaker programme to talk about America’s national parks. I met with some leaders and government representatives who were working on conservation and ecotourism and I spoke about how we do that. We also did a couple of screenings of a great Imax film called National Parks Adventure that really highlights some of our most spectacular national parks and it was lot of fun. I got to six of the seven emirates, which not everyone can say!