Pioneering Wildlife Viewing: Challenges and Triumphs with Tom Segerstrom

Tom Segerstrom had a lifelong desire to forge a bond between man and wildlife. Born and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis, an early obsession with wildlife led him to major in Montana State University. His passion for wildlife spilled over into his career with Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Despite the success, something didn't sit right with Tom. He noticed a widening gap between the public and their interaction with wildlife. Inspired by Harvard studies, he realized people's perception of wildlife was skewed by a lack of interaction. He was determined to bridge this gap, to show people the beauty he saw in wildlife. Tom took the road less travelled, moving to Jackson Hole and launching his own business to give people a whole new wildlife experience. He saw potential in a market that overlooked wildlife's appeal, creating a novel niche that thrived on people's curiosity and desire to connect with nature. With eyes sparkling with passion, young Tom Segerstrom set off from his home in Minneapolis, dreaming of connecting people to the wildlife he had loved since childhood. The next step? Jackson Hole. Here, Tom endured the obstacles of securing permits, learning the area, and establishing his company. Tom had a clear vision and an unwavering determination. He gave tourists the chance to observe, appreciate, and learn about animals in their natural habitat. He was able to turn the tide of the tourism industry, emphasizing the importance of wildlife and pioneering a new form of engagement.

My special guest is Tom Segerstrom

Meet Tom Segerstrom, a naturalist at heart and a trailblazer in the field of eco-tourism. Growing up with an unwavering interest in wildlife, Tom expanded his passion into a commendable career. As a certified wildlife biologist, he broke the mould by initiating the concept of wildlife viewing ecotourism in the Greater Yellowstone area. Notably known for his innovative approach, Tom embarked on a journey to make wildlife experiences accessible for people who are not necessarily hunters or fishermen. His success in setting up participatory conservation experiences have opened a new dimension in wildlife stewardship. Despite the high stakes and varied challenges, his relentless dedication gives his audience the chance to tangibly partake in wildlife conservation.

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Today we are talking to Tom Segerstrom. He is a certified wildlife biologist, and he pioneered wildlife viewing ecotourism in Greater Yellowstone. Welcome, Tom. Thank you very much. So, Tom, and we're probably going to go back and forth between a couple of things because your life is so interesting, but you were the first, and I wanted to know what was your inspiration to pioneer wildlife viewing and what happened after that?         


I was a district biologist with the Wyoming Humanities Council and Fish Department in the did, my master's on an operating coal mine in Gillette on pronghorn antelope and the effects of mining on pronghorn antelope. But having broken the career ceiling there and gotten a full time job with Wyoming Humanities Council as a district biologist, I worked that position for about five years. And it struck me that we were really serving landowners and hunters and people who didn't hunt and fish. We didn't have a lot of interaction with that portion of the public. So I read some studies done out of Harvard by Stephen Kellert, and basically they were attitude studies, americans attitudes towards wildlife.         


And he set up a system that broke them out. And it was clear that attitudes towards wildlife had changed quite a bit since the 1950s, and that there was a really elevated interest in wildlife and reflected in television shows, in newspaper articles, and a wide variety. Ever since the beginning of Wild Kingdom with Mutual of Omaha, it had really picked up. And the Discovery Channel was going, and the Animal Channel was going, and those people didn't have very constructive ways to interact with wildlife as they would like to have. The other aspect was that as a wildlife biologist, I was having all kinds of great wildlife experiences, and they were influencing my attitudes towards wildlife.         


And I just was asking myself the question, why doesn't anybody or everyone feel the way that I do about wildlife, value it in the same way? And my internal answer was, well, they haven't had the experiences that I've had. So I set about thinking, how would you get wildlife experiences for people? Just regular citizens, and it's a sensitive resource and it's regulated by the government. But you could set it up in a way that appealed to people that were not hunters and fishermen and let them participate in the stewardship of wildlife through research projects, that sort of thing.         


But package it very soft core, like a wildlife safari, which is something they might be familiar with. So I spent about a year convincing a friend of mine who was out of work wildlife biologist, which was common in those days, that he should do that. And I would feed him projects for people to work with and work on that gives them some hands on experiences with wildlife. And after a year or so, he know, Tom, I'm not going to do this. You should do it.         


And at that point, it kind of became a challenge. And I also realized that if I didn't do it, I had taken it far enough, the notion far enough that if I didn't do it, somebody else probably would and I'd be disappointed for the rest of my life. So I tried to do it from within. Wyoming Humanities Council and Fish Department tried to convince them that they should offer other opportunities for people to engage with wildlife and join wildlife biologists. It was not a new concept.         


It was something that Aldo Leot Polda talked about in Sand County. Almanac that stewardship of wildlife was like the joy of gardening was very enjoyable. And the fact that the wildlife is owned by everyone, the citizens of the United States, anytime a wildlife biologist would interact with them, they should include the public. So after about two years of trying to get the Wyoming Humanities Council and Fish Department to do it, and trying to do it on some of my vacation times of inviting people out to participate with wildlife, and I was informed that, no, they weren't going to allow that and I would have to leave Game and Fish in order to pursue that. So shortly afterwards, I did.         


I moved to Casper and worked there for two years. And then I left the Game and Fish Department to entrepreneurialize and pioneer this new interest for people. And so I began to advertise. I bought a vehicle, bought optics, and started packaging trips together. And it became clear that from Casper, Wyoming, it was not going to work.         


I could not recreate Casper as a destination that people would want to come to, and that the marketing that Jackson did in Teton County did would enable some of that because people were already coming there and I could piggyback on the vacations that they were already taking. So that's really what brought you to Jackson, to move to Jackson Hole? Where were you living when you first started? I was living in Casper, and it was not a move of I want to go to Jackson, although it had a lot to offer. I'd lived in Bozeman, another ski town, and it seemed like it would be a good place to live, but it was really a business move and I did not really want to be there because it was crowded.         


I thought by Casper standards I could look at wildlife all by myself versus with a lot of people. But I had a German wholesaler explain to me that those were my values and not his clients and that I should go to Jackson to capitalize on that and wrap it in with the general national parks experience. So what was your first experiences in Jackson and from then till now? How has Jackson, Wyoming changed? Well, my first experiences in Jackson were because of the 1988 fires, and I was traveling across the nation and speaking about coming out to do a wildlife expedition or safari and promoting it.         


And when the fires hit, there were many people whose vacations were disrupted and they were looking around for, well, what else can we do if we can't get into the park? And so I started coming over to Jackson and running some trips out of Jackson, even though I lived in Casper. So when I moved to Jackson, I had to get all new permits because I was permitted under nine different agencies. Again, the wildlife resource is sensitive and it's held in common ownership, so my activities being commercial, would need to be permitted through the agencies. So moved here into a basement apartment and set about learning the area for wildlife resources and also getting permits from the agencies.         


So at that time, there were people looking at wildlife, but it was not the main attraction. For example, if I went to the brochure rack and looked for what activities could you do? You could ride a snowmobile or float the river, but if you were lucky, maybe they had a blurry picture of a bald eagle in there and nobody was really promoting that resource. So I wrangled the permits for the most part. Some of them had to be set through one agency for another, and for both Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, I was able to get permits to run a commercial operation.         


So that was the only company at that time. And for the first 15 years that was providing those services for people, and it was pretty controversial. The park wasn't sure that they needed somebody capitalizing on the wildlife when it was free for everyone, but they were really short of naturalists. And what people were learning about wildlife in their visit to Grand Teton and Yellowstone was pretty minimal because they were on their own and nobody had any optics. If I was driving through the parks and saw somebody that had a spotting scope, which is now a common tool, which I am pleased I played a role in introducing to people, I would stop and talk to that person because obviously they were a very serious watcher.         


They had invested in optics. Now many, many people have the right optics and cameras and that sort of thing, and it's become commonplace and even overcrowded in some cases with photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. So that was pretty much non existent. When I was there, people would, well, didn't even know where to go look at bison. They wanted to see buffalo.         


They didn't know where to that. And I explained to the naturalists and the rangers that if it was successful, then perhaps they weren't providing all the services that people wanted. And commercially I could provide some of those, even though government funding wasn't available to help people be engaged with wildlife. Now, the other aspect was that private companies doing research on wildlife radio tracking, capturing and handling wildlife was not common. But because of my contacts in the agencies, I was able to get permits and interact with biologists that were already researching, capturing and handling and radio tracking animals to add to their data, flesh out or make their research more robust just using commercial clients.         


There were many research projects that had fallen through the cracks of federal funding. The primary one that is most well known was the path of the pronghorns. No agency really claimed control or the wherewithal to research that. It was not all on Forest Service, it was not all in the national park and it was not all on the Elk Refuge. And Wyoming Humanities Council and fish department had other priorities.         


It was a small group of antelopes. So that was research that needed to be done. So I began on that project because I had done my masters on pronghorn antelope to compile all the information that we could possibly find about the migration of pronghorn into Jackson Hole. And that included random marked animals that have been collared down in Rock Springs with visual collars. It included interviewing a lot of landowners and other biologists that had seen parts of the migration route and then, with tourists paying the bill, put out off the shelf VHS camcorders or recorders out in a garbage can on different segments of the migration route that were unknown.         


For example, how the antelope crossed over Russell Hill, which is up in the groveant, and we were able to use time lapse photography, which in those days was a common feature on big shoulder held camcorders, to record portions of the migrations and get a count of how many animals were coming in. And the tourists would pay the way to travel up to the cameras every four days and change out the batteries and watch the video to see if we captured any animals. This was long before the time of game cameras becoming so popular and the other research on the migration route. So we actually took the next step with researching that migration route and pulled together the funds for airtime and manpower to capture antelope and put radio collars on. I was just lacking the money to put the radio collars on.         


And at that point a Wyoming Humanities Council and fish biologist, Doug McWhorter, contacted me and said I understand that you have a study design for the migration route. And I said yes I do. And he said well, Ultra Oil is doing their development over in Sublet county and they're asking what can they do to mitigate the potential damages to the pronghorn population, can I see it? And I said absolutely, you can take it and it'd be better if somebody else did the research. And then my clients would just interact with that researcher.         


So that went to the University of Wyoming co op unit and would do that research project through the university and my clients would pick up the radio collars and track them on their summer ranges. So that worked really great. They did the captures and put on the collars and at the airtime and documented that route with GPS collars. And so that then is history about how those antelope might manage to make it into Jackson Hole. There were other issues with those pronghorn antelope about whether they were a separate population because they seemed to be giving birth late, which is something that my clients researched with me.         


We also studied porcupines and radio collar and tracked porcupines in relation to forest fires. So there was an area there by Ditch Creek that burned in 1988, and it burned again in 1992. And I happened to have be researching porcupines at that time and how they use the habitat after a fire and whether they burn up or whether they run away or what they do during forest fire. So that was another thing that was a favorite with my clients, the tourists who came to spend a part of their day capturing, handling, and radio tracking and collecting data on porcupines. So the trips were packaged so that it was billed as a day in the field with a wildlife biologist, safari style.         


So we safaried and we taught them how to find more animals on their own because certainly the public's wildlife and then each day they had to collect data as their effort to steward the wildlife which belongs to them. So they participated in these research projects, and we averaged about four pieces of data on every trip that we would write down and provide to the agencies to help them manage the wildlife. So that was the concept and in addition, model appropriate ecotourism and make sure that the monies generated that by that activity, hired local people, bought local products, stayed in local hotels and meals, that sort of thing. So we even bought our binoculars. We're brunton binoculars made in thermopolis to keep the money in Wyoming, prevent what is called in the ecotourism trade leakage out of the community.         


So we were modeling appropriate ecotourism. I love that I'm going to go back in time because I want to know where you grew up and why Wyoming? I'm originally from Minnesota. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis. And for whatever reason, from a very young age, I was obsessed with wildlife.         


I know my second grade Haiku poem was something about owls. And so I was just born that way and spent my youth as much as I could outside and interacting with wildlife. I had a friend in junior high who decided that he was, because of his interest in wildlife, he was going to go to Montana State University to go to college. And I thought that sounded great. So I put in and also went to Montana State and there got a bachelor's and a master's degree.         


But I did my master's on, as I said, pronghorn antelope at an operating coal mine in Gillette, Wyoming, even though I was a Montana student. So because of that, I made contacts in the state of Wyoming and worked there for the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, doing a wildlife inventory in an area that I was familiar with in the northern half of Campbell County. And then there was an opening for the district biologist there with Wyoming Humanities Council, and I was also able to get that job. Then I transferred to Casper and then I started this company.         


It was deliberate move to Jackson as the easiest place to market this kind of new activity. So that's why I came to Jackson. And so what did you do after? When we talked earlier, you said you pioneered a wildlife viewing in Greater Yellowstone and then you sold it and you went on to do other things. That's correct.         


I started the company and I built it up to where it was a profitable entity and had still some room to grow, and then I sold it. The Teton Science Schools bought it as a profit center for their nonprofit, which is an interesting model, but that's what happened. And then I looked around to see who could use a guy like me. I was out of work, but being paid for the company. The Jackson Hole Land Trust had an opening for a land steward and wildlife biologist.         


So I applied for that and at age 45, took a $20,000 a year job working for the Jackson Hole Land Trust. And I did that for 15 years, identifying the wildlife or public values on potential conservation properties and working with landowners after they did easements to navigate the best way to exercise their property rights and still do conservation as they had agreed upon in their conservation easement. So I got to know a lot of the private land. I was very familiar with the public lands in the Gye, but did not have a lot of experience on all the private lands. And for me, it was really fit the pieces of the puzzle together.         


I saw a complete picture of the landscape and how wildlife were using that landscape and the types of activities that were going on. During that time that I was employed by the Jackson Hole Land Trust, I volunteered as an associate member for the Teton Conservation District Board of Supervisors. They have officially elected supervisors and they have advisory board members. So I did that for a couple of years, and then it was time for elections, and I ran for being a supervisor and was elected by the public to serve on the Conservation District Board. Now, most people don't understand what the Conservation districts do, but they are throughout the country, and they're under the Department of Agriculture in each state.         


But there's a locally elected board, like a school board, that selects what the priorities are in their regions. In our case, it was Teton County, including Yellowstone. They have the authority to tax people up to one mil to do partnering types of conservation projects, either with other agencies or landowners or even individual citizens. And so that makes it a very unique small slice of government that is very nimble and very directed towards local conservation practices that can be beneficial. Their origins were in the Dust Bowl, and it was geared towards conserving soil and water, which had eroded badly during those drought years.         


But they have wide latitude and it really is based what they're engaged in is really based on the interests of the citizens within their district. So there's a locally elected board and the citizens also every four years can vote whether to voluntarily tax themselves for conservation purposes. I did that for eight years, I think, then got off the board because I was extremely busy at the Land Trust, it seemed, and their executive director retired. So I thought now that I could do and make a bigger impact on the Gye through that minimal seven employee local government entity that was well funded by voluntary tax dollars. So I became the executive director of the Teton Conservation District and did more evaluation and strategic planning and tried to figure out exactly how could we be extremely relevant to the community.         


And with cost share and partnering programs, we really became more widely known then as playing a role in conservation here. Perhaps the largest role is pioneering and really developing the awareness level of our water quality issues here in the county. In addition, we really worked with a ton of landowners on weed control, paying for 50% of their weed control costs until the Teton County Weed and Pest Department took that over and also fire safety and doing defensible space. Around our homes and giving you a cost share benefit if you will remove some of the vegetation in a strategic manner around your homes. Many, many other projects and funded many other projects each year through grants that other organizations were working on.         


I think it'd be great to talk about the here and now of Jackson Hole in terms of where they are. What do you think about the wildlife, wildlife management and what's happened in our Greater Yellowstone ecosystem? Well, tracking the pioneering of that company, americans attitudes towards wildlife have shifted dramatically since the even the 60s. We're much more humanistic in how we view wildlife. We're much more ecologistic, which means understanding the wildlife as an ecosystem.         


And citizens are also much more moralistic about how we treat wildlife. And in general, their interest in animals and wildlife is much higher than it used to be. It used to be we were pretty utilitarian in the United States of what good are the animals and what can we use them for? Now we have what some people would call an armchair value. I just want to see them and I want to know that they're out there and I want to know that they're working in a system and those populations are healthy.         


And national parks have played a key role in that, of allowing that to be perpetuated. We've been very good in the United States of saving and rescuing our wildlife from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 19th century, 18th and 19th century. I guess that's the 20th and 21st century. So there's a lot of interest and a lot of tourism being based around coming to the national parks to see wildlife. That was always the case to some degree, but now it is ranked up very high on why you would come to Yellowstone and Grand Teton.         


There's always, of course, the natural features, the geysers, the mountains, the scenery. But wildlife is representing a bigger interest and motivator for people to come to these two national parks. And of course, those two national parks form the heart of the ecosystem, which is the largest nearly intact ecosystem left in the 48, lower 48 states. So it's playing a very important role. There's no more accessible wildlife than here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where it's so visible, it's in part because of our terrain and in part because of our vegetation, that you can see all the animals.         


Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, they all have a wide array of wildlife as well, but the vegetation is such that it's hard to see them. This has become a famous place for viewing wildlife, and the media has really promoted that and made it very popular. So there's a shift in the kinds of amenities that people are looking for. And in addition, America has gotten more urbanized. So wildlife in certain areas are certainly a complete ecosystem is not intact any other place.         


We don't have the whole array of animals that you can see here in a single day, in wintertime, in 4 hours. It's possible to see all of the large, hoofed, plant eating animals in North America, or at least most of them. You can see buffalo, elk, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, antelope, and white tailed deer just in a very short amount of time. And they're all wild and free ranging. That is a trophy that you cannot collect any other place in the United States.         


So it is something that the tourism industry and the national parks have come to realize and included in their promotional materials. Like I said in 1985, when I came here, you wouldn't find any pictures of animals to speak of. It was all activities. And so that's a big shift, a big boon to how to promote this area with no additional costs. It doesn't create or demand any further infrastructure.         


It's a naturally occurring resource that's available to everyone. I think my question is more on, aren't we loving them to death? I mean, yes, we know we have this intact ecosystem in Wyoming. We know that Yellowstone is celebrating 150 years of being the first national park in the United States. But what are we doing that is potentially damaging what the efforts of conservation have created throughout the years?         


Yes, certainly, as I noted before, the wildlife is a sensitive resource. And never before in human history have we been able to really populate an area with humans and retain and keep the wildlife. It is an age old struggle that Aldo Leopold pointed out. He said it's the age old struggle of trying to live on a piece of land without ruining it. The things that we do as human beings tend to simplify the ecosystem.         


Even moving a house into a aspen grove, for example, we will see a corresponding reduction in the diversity of bird life that are in that aspen grove, simply because there's human presence there. It's not something we intend, it's not evil intent. It is something that comes with human beings. And this has become the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And area has become extremely popular because of its amenities, not just nature, but also cultural amenities for people to live.         


And we are also at the head of the drainages. So as climate change takes place, there will be immigration to more northern climbs and heads of watersheds where there's still available snow and water. So as we develop Teton County, for example, only 3% of the land here is private, but it is the best habitat for wildlife, because when we came here as subsistence livers, as pioneers, we wanted to live where we had the best soil, best water, best grass, best wildlife to shoot and eat, and the best climate. And so those lands are key to keeping the system intact. So as we go about living here and trying to live in this area, we're trying to do it in a sensitive manner that will allow the ecosystem to sustain itself.         


And how to do that is not intuitively obvious. The things that we would just do out of common sense for having a good human life are detrimental in many ways, and there are many subtle ways. So this is a challenge. Each time we build a road, or the road gets filled up with traffic 24 hours a day that divides the landscape, for example, and fragments it. Every time we build a driveway, we fragment how big the aspen clone is into smaller patches.         


And that has an effect on how the ecology functions. Oftentimes we'll see wildlife, particularly here, in close proximity to people. But as my master's degree showed, that we had pronghorn antelope on the mine site, but those antelope were not able to use their natural habitat in the most effective way. And when that happens, it can reduce their vigor and their reproduction rates and how well their population thrives. So these are all hidden ways that as we go about loving the national parks and the private lands, that we have got to invent new ways to do that.         


Certainly lots of people displace wildlife, and even a single human can displace wildlife from what it needs to do out there in the wild. So we have to be sensitive to that. The result is a lot of regulations. The parks close at times, and areas say, for example, with a wolf den, you might not be able to walk in that area. There are closures for bears where bears are foraging on fish or berries, and we just try to limit our human activity.         


I like to say we like to exercise, or we need to exercise least frequently used freedom in America, and that is the freedom to limit ourselves for the benefit of something else. Another resource that we cherish this perhaps started with the Wilderness Act, where we realized that one of the uses of Forest Service land is to get away from the sign of other humans. So we designated wilderness areas where some of our other activities, like oil and gas drilling or anything that is motorized is excluded. And that's an example of exercising our freedom to limit ourselves for the benefit to derive a different type type of of benefit. This ecosystem, being largely intact, is becoming so valuable that it's clear we need to do conservation and at times limit our activities so that it can continue to be the resource that it is for the world.         


Wow. That is a very interesting and very complete answer, because human activity, that's the biggest detriment to wildlife. Yeah. And human presence. Right.         


That was really interesting, Tom. Well, I really appreciate your time today, and thank you thank you so much for making it happen.