US National Parks, Yellowstone

The Yellowstone Epidemic

What is it about 2016?

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.

Whatever it is, this travel season seems to have brought out all the idiots. And sent them to Yellowstone.

Allow me to preface this by saying one thing: I realize that accidents happen.

I also realize that there will always be people who break rules. And maybe I react more severely to this rule-breaking than others because I grew up visiting Yellowstone multiple times a year and I’m very protective of it. But this is getting ridiculous. It’s only mid-June and already there have been at least 7 major incidents in the park – not to mention who knows how many minor incidents that haven’t made national news.

I’m sure many of you have heard about some of these. First was a group from Canada who were caught walking off-boardwalk. But they weren’t just off the boardwalk – they were on a thermal feature. All for the sake of video footage.

Next came the two tourists who picked up an abandoned baby bison and put it in their car because they thought it was cold. Now, I realize that abandonment of a tiny animal is upsetting. It makes me sad too. But it’s a part of nature. Baby animals are abandoned for many reasons. In fact, some species regularly give birth to two babies at a time and only select one to raise. That’s just how it is. By “rescuing” this baby bison, these tourists interfered with nature, which is the very thing that Yellowstone is designed to protect.

There have also been multiple videos of tourists standing too close to wildlife, a problem which, admittedly, isn’t limited to this year. So far this year, I’ve seen videos of a woman petting a bison and a woman who got within a few feet of an elk, despite other tourists warning her that she was far too close. It charged her and sent her flying. I don’t think she was injured, but she could have been. All for the sake of a photograph.

It’s not a photo booth. It’s a national park. Cameras have a zoom feature for a reason. These animals are dangerous, and approaching them can have consequences, not only for the animal, but for us all.

More recently were three thermal feature-related incidents. In the first, a father and son suffered burns from falling into Morning Glory Pool. News reports say that the boy fell in when the father slipped, and the father got burned pulling his son out. Both were off of the boardwalk when the incident occurred. The slipping part presumably was accidental. Leaving the boardwalk was not.

Now, going beyond the fact that they were off the boardwalk, this happened at, of all places, Morning Glory Pool. Morning Glory Pool used to be a beautiful, dark blue hot spring, and one of Yellowstone’s main attractions. Over time, it also became became a wishing well. But what started as pennies and quarters morphed into a dumping ground. So many things were thrown into Morning Glory Pool that its vents got clogged and the pool was forever changed. In subsequent years, park officials have fished everything from pieces of garbage to a chair (yes, a chair) out of the spring. Despite removal of these objects, the pool’s original appearance has not been restored.

Today, there’s a sign at Morning Glory Pool that chronicles this destruction. And yet, here was a father and son walking up to the very pool that has been irreparably damaged by human action, and stepping off the boardwalk.

The second incident resulted in a man’s death as he fell into a hot spring. I’m not sure they know exactly what happened, other than the fact that he was very far off the trail when it occurred. Though the man may have fallen in by accident, his decision to leave the trail was intentional.

And most recently, a tourist was fined $1,000 for stepping off the boardwalk and breaking through the crust so he could collect water from a hot spring.

I’m glad this man was fined; maybe it will send a message to others. But no amount of money will undo the damage he caused to a fragile natural feature that took thousands of years to form. Now all the rest of us will only see the footprint of a person who couldn’t be bothered to read the park safety information or one of the many signs warning of the dangers and illegality of leaving the boardwalk.

National Parks are meant for people to enjoy, and 2016 should be a year to celebrate that. But in order for all of us to enjoy our National Parks, it also requires that all of us respect them. National Parks are there to protect things, and the laws that exist are in place so this protection is ensured. In Yellowstone, this means keeping your distance from animals, not feeding or touching them, and staying on boardwalks and trails.

If you’re reading this, you may be thinking “well, I’m just one person, so what’s the harm in taking a few steps off the boardwalk, or getting just a little too close to that bison, or feeding that deer?” But it only takes one person to leave a footprint in a thermal area, destroying what has taken hundreds or thousands of years to accumulate. It only takes one person standing too close to cause an animal to charge. It only takes one bite of human food for an animal to start becoming accustomed to approaching humans or rummaging through trash cans in search of more. These animals begin to cause problems, begin to initiate human encounters, and inevitably end up having to be euthanized.

All because one person chose to break the law.

I’m not writing this because I have a magical cure for everything. I don’t know what the best solution is. But clearly the existing system of handing everyone a pile of park information and relying on people to read and obey warning signs isn’t working.

Ordinarily, I’d say that if someone is dumb enough to pet a bison, they probably deserve to get gored. Natural selection at its finest. But this is a national park, and one person’s actions can impact us all, so this clearly isn’t a good solution.

Perhaps the best strategy, at least in the interim, is for the rest of us to speak up. It used to be that if a child misbehaved, people other than the child’s parents were allowed to say something. The whole “it takes a village” mentality. I don’t know when or why this fell out of favor, because it does take a village, and I don’t just mean to raise a child.

It’s all of our responsibility to ensure that our national parks stay safe. If you see someone off the boardwalk, remind them that it’s not allowed. If someone approaches an animal, tell them that they’re too close and are putting themselves (and, really, everyone else in the general area) in danger. If more people speak up, more accidents can be prevented. More animal encounters can be avoided. More thermal features can be protected.

And, most importantly, more people can have a safe, enjoyable trip to America’s first national park.

15 thoughts on “The Yellowstone Epidemic”

  1. It’s a funny coincidence that you published this post the very week we were in Yellowstone! And while we didn’t see too many blatantly bad incidences, we definitely noticed more of a “Disney World” kind of feeling to it than other national parks, since I think it attracts a lot of visitors that may not typically visit a lot of other national parks. Despite the signs and print materials they hand you at the gate that are pretty informative, there definitely does seem to be a need for more education, or unfortunately, consequences, related to how to conduct oneself in these types of places!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re definitely not the first person to mention the Disneyland thing. It’s sad to me that this is how people view national parks…but good to hear that people were mostly behaving when you were there.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so sad. Last month Croatia reported its most beautiful national park ruined by selfie takers. Italy started limiting traffic to Cinque Terre. Just last weekend, I went to our very own Mt. Rainier National Park, where tourists stomped their feet on the fragile meadows crashing wild flowers ignoring the very own signs in front of their eyes. I am tempted to take a picture of them with the signs in front. What a shame!


  3. Thanks for an interesting post. Personally, I think speaking up will always be a good thing to do, but in fragile places like this, I think the only thing that will have effect is the presence of park rangers. I know, they can’t be everywhere. But they should be visible enough to cause an effect. Just like the police out on the highways.

    Plus – information about large fees – that is impossible to miss. I visited a cave in many years ago. There was a “mandatory minimum five years imprisonment” info board. I might have forgotten how the cave looked like, but I will never forget the info board. In that context, a fine of USD 1,000 seems … low.

    We have glaciers in our country. When people go beyond the fences – put in place to prevent them from being killed by ice- or rock fall – I think they do this well knowing of the risk. I don’t think they’re ignorant or stupid. I think they take calculated risks. For what? That one picture that no one else got to take? To tell that one story no one else got to tell? Perhaps. Would they stop if I yelled at them? Hardly. Would they stop if the park ranger yelled at them? Most likely.
    Just my $.02


  4. You nailed it. All the 100 year anniversary advertising must have attracted the ‘casino’ crowd. Those are the folks who should just watch the National Geographic Channel from their hotel rooms and leave the real outdoors to people who will love, respect, and preserve our natural resources, rather than selfishly desecrate these wonders.

    Liked by 4 people

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