Parks Say To Never Approach Wildlife. So Why Do People Still Do It?

Aug 16, 2019

In the past month, Yellowstone National Park has gone viral a couple of times on social media with videos of bison charging at visitors. Bison-human incidents happen every season sometimes causing injuries. Yellowstone is always trying to figure out how to get the message across that the bison, elk, bears and even badgers that people encounter in the park are wild and dangerous. But why are people continually getting too close to wildlife?

A recent example is a video online of a bison. The large, shaggy mammal is ambling along a side of a hill eating grass. All of the sudden, the bull charges at a group of people about five feet away.

Everyone is able to get out of the way except for a 9-year-old girl. She gets tossed into the air. The girl was injured and airlifted to a hospital. This video went viral earlier this summer.

"Encounters occur almost on a daily basis," said Morgan Warthin, the public affairs specialist at Yellowstone National Park. "Wildlife incidents occur probably far too frequently, where on a given day, people are getting too close to wildlife."

In Yellowstone, visitors are advised to stay 25 yards away from bison and elk and 100 yards from bears and wolves. Bison have injured more visitors to Yellowstone than any other animal.

But that message never seems to get across. Kirsten Leong is a social scientist who has researched how human risk enhancing behaviors increase visitor injuries. She said both animals and humans are guilty.

"Animals learn that people are not threatening, and they stop responding to them," Leong said. "They ignore them, they just go about their business as if people were not there."

This is called habituation. And biologists don't like to see this in wildlife. Leong said it allows people and animals to get closer to each other then they should. Visitors tend to think that these animals aren't threatening when they see these huge, lumbering beasts calmly walking right past cars or developed areas of the park. Leong said just one person getting too close to a bison can cause a chain reaction.

"If you have people who are seeing other people approaching a bison and then think, 'Oh, they're doing it, it's ok for me to do,' and then you start getting more people around them. That's when the animal is more likely to react," she said.

An example of the messaging the Safe Wildlife Distance Campaign Worked on.
Credit Safe Wildlife Distance Campaign

That's because it begins to feel threatened by the number of people crowding around it. According to Leong's research, all of the reported bison injuries in Yellowstone from 2000 to 2015 were in developed areas. For Katie Abrams, the project lead on the Safe Wildlife Distance Campaign, this makes sense.

"People then change their views of that animal from being wildlife to a pet or a pest so they might treat it as such so their risk perception are low," she said.

The Safe Wildlife Distance Campaign took research like Leong's and tried to create more effective messaging. Abrams said most people who are injured are trying to get that perfect, shareable photo.

"So we tried to frame keeping the safe distance from wildlife as being not necessarily only preventing risk but also beneficial to your park experience," said Abrams. "So that was the general approach to the long distance relationship is the best kind of relationship."

Abrams said they also found providing infographics with something visitors might be more familiar with helped people stay the correct distance from wildlife. Like how many buses is 25 yards? Turns out it's two busses.

"When we go into a library everyone knows how to behave. It's quiet. We know to be respectful of others around us, and I want people to come into a park and already have those social norms," said Abrams.

But she said enforcing those social norms still depends on that one person not getting too close to an animal, so when one visitor does do something stupid, with today's social media it tends to go viral.

"This video shows a man reaching over a fence to pet a bison at Yellowstone," reported a TV anchor for the Today Show. "At one point the bison rears back."

After this happened, the National Park Service posted a graphic on its social media pages. A bison is chopped up into sections, which read, "Nope." "How fast are you?" "Vacation over," and "Ouch." Abrams said this is a way to utilize an example of something not to do, to instill a positive social norm.

"If I see that and I share that because I think it's funny, I'm sort of putting it out there in the world, not only do I think this is funny and I get social credit for that but also maybe I get a little social credit because I know better."

The post has become the most popular of the summer. So next time a video goes viral of a visitor getting too close to wildlife share it with your friends because their laughter might make someone else safe.