ASHEVILLE — Armed only with a paintball gun and a Park Service badge, Brandon Garcia knew he was all that stood between a black bear, a horde of tourists, and something going terribly hairy.
As a wildlife intern at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, part of Garcia’s job was to assist park volunteers in breaking up “bear jams” in the Cades Cove area, where thousands of people come each day to see the historic buildings, pastoral landscape and to take pictures of bears.
But the humans often stop their cars in the middle of the road and get dangerously close to the bears.
Garcia was trying to explain to the tourists why they should steer clear of the bear eating his acorns, when he noticed the bear becoming agitated.
“I got outside my truck to shoo him away. He saw me and kind of bluff charged, which is like his defensive mechanism, but not to attack you,” Garcia said.
“He was like 5 yards away. He hit the ground with his paws and started chomping his teeth. And he charged.”
Garcia relied on his training, deflected his flight instincts and stood his ground.
“You’re not supposed to run away, but kind of make yourself look big and yell at the bear. I did that. I raised my hands up and made myself look big and yelled. I chased after the bear with a paintball gun and shot it and chased it away,” he said.
“At that point, he already had enough. He was really agitated. He had already charged me. I didn’t want to risk him charging anyone else.”
Thanks to Garcia’s quick actions, everyone went home safely that day.
“It was definitely scary. Anyone who tells you different is probably lying,” he said.
But the rush of adrenaline and the satisfaction of having protected wildlife and people kept Garcia, 28, on the job he has worked for the last six seasons in the busiest national park in the country.
At the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15-Oct. 15, Garcia said he loves his job in the environmental field, which is out of the norm for many Hispanics, and would like to see more people like himself enter the rewarding career in helping people, wildlife and the environment.
Hispanics and the outdoors
National Hispanic Heritage Month was established by Congress in 1968 as a weeklong celebration of Hispanic Americans, their culture and their history. In 1988 it was expanded to a month. The celebration begins in mid-September to coincide with the independence days for several Latin American countries.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica celebrate their national independence from Spain on Sept. 15. Mexico celebrates its independence Sept. 16, Chile Sept. 18 and Belize Sept. 21.
Hispanics, who can be of any race, but have the Spanish language and culture in common, make up about 18% of the U.S. population, at nearly 61 million in 2019, but account for more than half of the U.S. population growth in the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center.
But their numbers are not well represented in the outdoors in terms of recreation or employment.
According to the 2019 Outdoor Industry Association Participation Report, Hispanic Americans was the strongest among the ethnic groups who participate in outdoor sports like hiking, camping and mountain biking. But they represented just 10.7% of outdoor participants.
According to a 2008 visitor use study in the Great Smokies, 97% of visitors each year are white, while only 2% were American Indian or Alaska Native, 1% Asian, 1% Black or African American and 2% identified as Latino or Hispanic.
A 2008 Blue Ridge Parkway study showed nearly identical results.
A visitor-use study by the U.S. Forest Service in 2018 showed that of the nearly 6 million visitors to the national forests in North Carolina, including Pisgah and Nantahala, 96% were white, 4.7% Hispanic, 1.5% Black/African American, 1.4% Asian and 0.8% were American Indian/Alaskan.
The numbers show an even greater disparity among Hispanics in North Carolina, because they make up 22% of the population.
And the disparity bleeds into employment. According to Smokies spokeswoman Dana Soehn, out of the park’s 223 full-time employees, only three are Hispanic.
Kathy Kupper, spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., said the NPS is trying to change those statistics. In 2014 the park service established Latino Conservation Week in July.
“It is a nine-day celebration designed to encourage everyone, especially the Latino community, to enjoy and explore our public lands. These programs and activities also aim to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards,” Kupper said.
However, neither the parkway nor the Smokies had any events tied to this celebration.
Garcia said he grew up knowing nothing about the Park Service or environmental careers, but he hopes that when other Hispanics see people like himself out in the woods, scaring off bears, it will encourage them to see out these types of jobs and outdoor activities.
From dentistry to pulling bears' teeth
Garcia was born and raised in Sachse, Texas, an eastern suburb of Dallas, to Mexican parents. He has two brothers and two sisters.
He said he grew up watching “Discovery Channel” and “Animal Planet,” but other than that had no inkling of what outdoor recreation meant, or an outdoors or environmental career.
“I hunted once or twice when I was a kid and fished with my grandpa, but I never went hiking or camping. My mom and dad didn’t grow up with that,” Garcia said.
Instead, Garcia was intrigued by the science behind teeth and went to study dentistry at Texas Tech University. He was the first person in his immediate family to go to college.
During his sophomore year, he roamed the tables around the student union representing the college’s various clubs.
“I saw the Society for Conservation Biology club. They were partners with the Fisheries and Wildlife Club. I talked to them for 20 minutes and joined the club. I went to one meeting where they were talking about jobs in that field, ecology, wildlife biologist, technician. I had no idea about these jobs,” Garcia said.
Every year the club took a camping trip in a state park to talk with local biologists. Garcia’s first camping trip was in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which has the largest canyon after the Grand Canyon. The grandeur, the fresh air, the night sky and he was hooked on the outdoors.
“I loved it. It was awesome,” he said.
One of his mentors was an upperclasswoman, Masi Mejia, now well known in the environmental education world. Garcia said Mejia encouraged him to pursue an environmental study and had him visit Robert Cox, who taught plant ecology.
After speaking with Cox about all the opportunities in the field, from wildlife biologist to plant ecologist, range management and fisheries, Garcia decided to change his major to wildlife biology.
His first internship after graduation was with one of the university’s doctoral students on a duck project, counting duck species around east and central Texas and watching what they ate.
After that he found an internship with bear management in the Great Smokies. It was the first time he ever put his hands on a live bear. His job was to assist his supervisor with darting bears or setting culvert traps to catch bears hanging around picnic areas or campgrounds.
He would take body measurements, taking blood samples — and here’s where that early dentistry study came in — pulling a tooth. They would then give the bear drugs to wake it up, and yell at it to scare it away so it wouldn’t become habituated to people and their food.
“The hardest part is finding out that people do feed the animals. The best part of working in our field is working with animals, but I think the most important role is working with the public and educating them,” Garcia said.
He said he has come across some racism, but he thinks it had more to do with people angry about traffic jams than his skin tone. But he said he doesn’t let it bother him.
Garcia also worked as fisheries intern working in native brook trout restoration, and now works as a wildlife biology technician with the park’s famed elk herd.
The giant deer-like animals were extirpated from the Southern Appalachians some 200 years ago. A small herd was reintroduced in 2001, and it now numbers about 150, Garcia said.
He helps wildlife biologist Joe Yarkovich track cow elk that have been collared via telemetry in three subherds within North Carolina — Cataloochee, Maggie Valley and Oconaluftee.
“We find a cow that’s collared and see if (the) cow is by itself. That’s a telltale sign that (it's) going to give birth, and look at their udder. If it’s swollen, producing milk, she’s pregnant or has already given birth,” he said.
They then mimic a calf call and once they find a calf “stealthfully jump on the calf as fast as we can and efficiently put on a collar, sex it to see if it’s male or female, and on a good day, if it’s not squealing, we can get measurements and put a PIT tag on back of neck so later we can see how much weight they gained.”
Garcia, who lives in Bryson City, said he also loves the other opportunities working in the national park brings, including getting training in wildland firefighting and in search and rescue. He assisted with a massive search last year for a man who was missing near the Swag Inn, and was found safely after five days.
Garcia said he still doesn’t know many Hispanics who work in the parks or the outdoors field, which he says in his opinion, is a lack of outreach. It’s also not the norm, not what many Hispanics have grown up with, calling himself “the oddball in my family.”
But Garcia said he wants to become more involved in outreach and sharing his passion for the outdoors with a younger Hispanic generation.
He remembered one time he was assisting a fisheries crew in West Virginia and staying at a hotel. He said when he walked through the lobby in his green and gray uniform, he saw some Mexican construction workers and one man called him over.
“He said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ in Spanish. I said, ‘I work at the park in fisheries,’” Garcia said. “He said, ‘Oh really, that’s cool. That’s awesome. I’m proud of you.’”
Garcia said he’s proud of his Mexican heritage, and when pressed, says it has to be the food.
“The best way to break the ice is to have tacos. Who doesn’t love tacos? It’s a good way for Mexicans, and any other people of color, and white people just to kind of break that boundaries, talk to one another over food. Food is huge.”
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