Yellowstone National Park is epic. It is also wild – a fact that too many people continue to learn the hard way as tourist injuries at Yellowstone continue. Yellowstone wildlife are not pets, they are not living exhibits at a petting zoo, and the landscape is not a safe, neighborhood park. It is, however, still worth visiting.
The popularity of Yellowstone National Park is evidenced by the sheer number of tourists who visit each year. Since 2015, more than four million people have visited Yellowstone each year. Yellowstone is not only popular with Americans, the park also draws many international tourists as well.
Visitors to Yellowstone National Park are warned in literature distributed upon entry, by frequent signage around the park, and by rangers to respect wildlife and maintain a safe distance. Signs around geothermal features also warn visitors to not stray from boardwalks or established pathways. These rules for visitors are not arbitrary or capricious, but are intended to protect the environment, wildlife, and visitors.
This past week there was yet another reported tourist injury at Yellowstone, and once again the incident was completely avoidable. On July 22, a group of tourists were reportedly crowded around a bison near Old Faithful. Witness reports indicate that as many as 50 people were watching the bison from as little as 5-10 feet away for about 20 minutes. The bison eventually had enough of being crowded and, predictably, it did what bison do. It charged the crowd of spectators.
Unfortunately, as the spectators screamed and scattered, a nine-year-old girl was unable to escape the charge. The bison slammed the girl with its head, tossing her into the air like a toy.
As a former EMT, I know well that this incident could have ended tragically with critical or even fatal injuries for the nine-year-old girl. Fortunately, the girl appears to have sustained only minor injuries as she was treated and released from a clinic at Yellowstone.
The National Park Service advises visitors to remain at least 25 yards away from any large animal in the park, and at least 100 yards from bears or wolves. As NPS noted in a recent press release about this incident, “Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park are wild.”
Failing to appreciate and respect the fact that wildlife are wild, whether at Yellowstone National Park or elsewhere, is dangerous to both humans and wildlife. Animals involved in a serious incident with humans may be euthanized as a result. Wild animals that are habituated to human interaction may lose their natural fear of people and suffer as a result – again sometimes being euthanized if their habituated behavior is deemed a threat to humans.
Please do visit our national parks and other wilderness areas. Please do enjoy viewing the wilderness scenery and wildlife from a safe distance or location. But please do not approach wildlife too closely or stray into areas that are marked as closed to visitors.
At the end of the day, you may not be the only one harmed by unsafe conduct or breaking the rules. It may also result in injury (or worse) to a child who follows you, to first responders who risk their lives trying to rescue you, or to wildlife that may be euthanized as a result of human interactions.
UPDATE Monday, June 29: A teen girl was also injured over the weekend in an incident involving bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The teen reportedly walked between two bull bison that had been fighting before being charged, gored, and tossed into the air. The teen was transported to a Bismarck hospital by helicopter.