Yellowstone officials try to make it very clear that tourists should not get close to wild bison. There are posters, educational videos and park rangers who warn people to stay clear of wildlife. But all that education might not be cutting it, according to a recent study.
Twenty five people were injured by wild bison in the park between 2000 and 2015. The majority of those people actively approached the bison before getting hurt. Several people got too close to try and and take photos of the beasts before they were gored or chased by bison.
"People just don’t understand. They go to Yellowstone and think it’s a zoo," says Stephany Seay with the Buffalo Field Campaign.
Seay says bison give warning signs when people come too close. If you come too close to a bison that's bedded down, it will warn you by standing up. It might next raise its tail, bellow at you and shake its head. And usually, a bison will "bluff charge" someone before actually attempting to gore them.
The authors are federal employees, and could not be reached because of the partial government shutdown. But the study concludes that education alone is not enough to prevent tourists from trying to pet or chase wildlife. Researchers looked at incident reports following injuries and found that many people were affected by social influencers.
One injured woman said "... her family read warnings in park literature and signage about not approaching wildlife, but when they saw other people close to bison, they thought they would be safe," according to the study. "A witness to another incident stated the injured person started creeping toward the bison to get better pictures and eventually was at an unsafe distance from the animal. Other photographers saw his example and started moving closer to bison as well."
Researchers said park officials may need to look to behavioral psychology to understand why park visitors take risks with wildlife, and then work to change those behaviors.
The report concludes, "Despite Yellowstone's extensive educational materials, the results show a recent increase in human injuries from bison encounters, indicating that education alone is not sufficient to reduce bison-related injuries."
Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher.
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This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.