Battling Bad Behavior in National Parks

Yellowstone National Park welcomed the 2016 National Park Service centennial season with May’s visitation numbers surpassing previous years. Unfortunately, the park also made headlines with tourists behaving badly. Crimes ranged from mistreatment of wildlife to abuse at hot springs. The worst cases resulted in deaths of a bison calf and an Oregon man.

When traveling in Yellowstone, you might be confronted with other visitors ignoring the rules. In most cases, they don’t intend to be malicious. They simply misunderstand the natural ecosystem, its realities and its dangers.

Yellowstone is not a manicured experience like Disneyland or a petting zoo. Every visitor entering the park has a responsibility to protect the wildlife and natural features. So, what can you do to encourage better behavior from others?

Bison on a road in Yellowstone
People and wildlife intersect frequently in Yellowstone. Photo © Zhiyu Li/123rf.

1. Model Good Judgment Around Wildlife

Yellowstone’s wild bison, elk, deer, and bears are unpredictable. These animals have a comfort zone regarding humans that visitors need to respect. Creeping too close stresses them, and their reaction can be swift and dangerous. Despite the bison’s docile appearance, the large creatures can pivot fast and bolt at 35 miles per hour. During 2015, bison gored five people who violated their space. Three of the incidents involved taking photos or selfies. During the past decade, bison have outranked grizzly bears in injuring people.

Help demonstrate the correct behavior around wildlife. If others around you crowd an animal, resist the urge to converge with them. Maintain the recommended distance: 25 yards from bison, elk, and most wildlife, but 100 yards from bears and wolves. Buy a telephoto lens to get that close up photo without crowding the animal. On roads, when stopped to see wildlife, take a couple pictures and drive on rather than creating a bear or bison jam.

2. Be Responsible with Social Media

To promote a better tourist ethic, be responsible in your choices of photos for sharing on social media. Selfies have their place, but do not take them in close proximity to wildlife. Likewise, do not take photos of people posed next to wildlife.

Photos mixing people and wildlife should only show the appropriate distance for viewing animals, not serve as bragging rights. Instead of joining the trend of abusive wildlife pictures, promote ethical photography.

Bison in Yellowstone
Bison in Yellowstone have surpassed grizzly bears in causing injury to humans. Use a telephoto lens to cut zoom in close. Photo © Becky Lomax.

3. Model Safety on Boardwalks and Trails

Yellowstone’s thermal features fume, sputter, spout, and bubble, and many mix with glorious color. But many have thin crusts and scalding water, making them as dangerous as they are beautiful. In June 2016, an Oregon man was killed when he walked off the path in Norris Geyser Basin and fell into a boiling spring. The acidic nature of the springs left no human remains to recover. A few days earlier, a young boy and his father both suffered burns in another location.

Before taking your family to sightsee thermal features, discuss what “hot” means at Yellowstone. If you wouldn’t hold your hand down on a hot burner, you shouldn’t touch hot water in Yellowstone. Around hot springs, hold young children firmly. If you see other visitors stepping off the boardwalks or trails at thermal features, notify a ranger. More people are injured in Yellowstone’s hot springs than any other thermal features.

Tour Grand Prismatic Spring on a boardwalk that helps protect the bacterial mats that create the vivid colors. Photo © Becky Lomax.
Tour Grand Prismatic Spring on a boardwalk that helps protect the bacterial mats that create the vivid colors. Photo © Becky Lomax.

4. Notify Rangers and Collect Evidence

Not only can Yellowstone’s thermals be deadly, but they can also be easily damaged by human intervention. The color of Morning Glory Pool has changed from visitors throwing things into the pipes. When you see people abusing the natural features or wildlife, report them to rangers.

Photographing misbehavior can help prevent it. The insensitive and dangerous trampling at Grand Prismatic Springs in May 2016 by four Canadians damaged the bacterial mats, but rangers were able to identify the culprits through photos on social media. In June 2016, a man walked off the boardwalk to collect water at Mammoth Hot Springs, breaking through the travertine crust. After a witness reported him, rangers were able to catch him and fine him $1,000. Rangers have credited witnesses with their ability to track down misbehaving tourists.

Notify a park ranger if you see anything that causes you concern.
Notify a park ranger if you see anything that causes you concern. Public domain photo, Yellowstone National Park.

Disrespecting wildlife and thermal features has no place in a national park. All visitors need to promote more responsible behavior.

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