Baby Bison Incident Signals Bigger Problem: Tourist Encounters With Wildlife

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Wildlife experts struggle to prevent tourists from engaging in inappropriate, dangerous and illegal behavior that can harm animals and humans.

In case you didn’t catch it: Last week, tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park who apparently didn’t know better tried to “rescue” a bison calf. It was an absurd tale — with a tragic ending. The animal was euthanized after its ill-fated encounter with the humans, according to the National Park Service.

It was only a glimpse into an unending litany of inappropriate, dangerous and illegal behavior by tourists that endangers animals and humans, NPS says. Dozens if not hundreds of people are injured by wildlife every year, according to NatGeo Wild. Many of the incidents are caused by tourists who ignore signs, brochures and other warnings to stay far away from wild animals.

In the case of the baby bison, the tourists drove it to the park office in what the National Park Service rangers called “a misplaced concern for the animal’s welfare.”

“In terms of human safety, this was a dangerous activity because adult animals are very protective of their young and will act aggressively to defend them,” the rangers said in a prepared statement. “In addition, interference by people can cause mothers to reject their offspring. In this case, park rangers tried repeatedly to reunite the newborn bison calf with the herd. These efforts failed. The bison calf was later euthanized because it was abandoned and causing a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway.”

This type of incident is far too common and can be deadly to humans and animals. Consider some recent accidental deaths, injuries and near misses caused by thoughtless actions:

A dolphin hugged to death: A dolphin of an endangered species died earlier this year after Argentine beach goers passed it around and took selfies with it, according to the Washington Post.

Man gored to death by a goat: A mountain goat gored 63-year-old Robert H. Boardman to death at Olympic National Park in Washington state. The 2010 accident occurred when the man tried to shoo the aggressive animal away from his hiking party, the Seattle Times reported.

Selfies with bears: Tourists love taking selfies of themselves with wild bears, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The threat to tourists by the bears – which generally weigh anywhere from 600 to 1,500 pounds depending on species, was so great that Waterton Canyon in Denver was closed last year.

“We’ve actually seen people using selfie sticks to try and get as close to the bears as possible, sometimes within 10 feet of wild bears,” blogged Brandon Ransom, Denver Water’s manager of recreation. “The current situation is not conducive for the safety of our visitors or the well-being of the wildlife.”

How far should these people have been from the animals? According to the NPS: “You must stay at least 100 yards (91 meters) away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards (23 meters) away from all other large animals — bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes.”

More folly with bison: Bison injure more visitors to Yellowstone than any other animal, according to the NPS.

Last year, five visitors to Yellowstone were seriously injured when they got too close to the lumbering animals, also referred to as buffalo.

One such incident involved a 43-year-old Mississippi woman and her 6-year-old daughter, who moved close to a bison to take a photo, according to the Post article. The woman turned her back to the bison, which charged and threw her into the air. She was taken to a clinic nearby and treated for minor injuries, reports said.

Two months earlier, a similar incident occurred with a Taiwanese tourist. When park rangers arrived, they found a group of tourists within 10 feet of the bison, the Post reported. The other injuries involved an Australian man within 5 feet of a 2,000-pound bison and a teenager who inadvertently startled a bison after a nighttime swim. A bison also gored a 68-year-old woman hiking in the park.

“People are getting way too close,” said Yellowstone National Park spokesperson Amy Bartlett, according to the Post. “The [woman] said they knew they were doing something wrong but thought it was okay because other people were nearby.”

Here are some fun facts to know about bison — compliments of the NPS — which these tourists apparently did not consider:

  • Bison can sprint three times faster than humans can run.
  • They are unpredictable and dangerous.
  • Your best view may be from inside a hard-sided vehicle.

The warnings don’t have as much impact on human behavior as you might imagine.

A recent viral video shows a visitor moved within arm’s length of an adult bison (an adult weighs an average of about 1,400 pounds) near Old Faithful, according to the NPS. Another video featured visitors posing for pictures with bison at extremely unsafe and illegal distances.

Maimed by a squirrel: Think it’s only large wildlife that you need to avoid? Consider a photo of someone’s badly injured hand after an encounter with a ground squirrel at Zion National Park in Utah, according to Leave No Trace.

Want to stay safe? Keep your distance from the wildlife, even the little guys.

Not an animal, but still hazardous: And while we’re on the subject of wilderness safety, when you go to Yellowstone and other parks with geothermal features (Old Faithful, et. al), don’t be one of those people sticking your toes in. Stay on the boardwalks and trails that are designed to protect you and preserve the delicate geological formations. The NPS warns:

Scalding water underlies most of the thin, breakable crust. Pools may be near or above the boiling temperature and can cause severe, possibly even fatal, burns.

So, keep your kids close, don’t bring your pets, and don’t swim where prohibited. And if you’re tempted, know this: Thermal waters may contain organisms know to cause infections and/or amoebic meningitis, which can quickly be fatal, the NPS says.

Have you traveled to the wilderness parks of the United States and encountered the animals — and the tourists? Share your experiences in our comments section or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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