This year alone, officials at Yellowstone National Park have dealt with several issues regarding tourists: The people who put a baby bison in their SUV because they they thought it was abandoned and cold and would die without their help or the 23-year-old tourist who died after falling into one of the park's famed hot springs when he was more than 250 yards off the designated path. And don't forget the other lower-profile cases in which tourists got too close to wildlife, trampled through delicate wilderness areas or otherwise behaved badly and ignored the park's safety messaging.
That safety messaging is posted on signs throughout the park and handed to visitors on a pamphlet as they enter. Park rangers have been handing out tickets and fines to rule breakers, but they're also trying another approach to combat the issue. Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says the park hired a full-time social scientist last summer to study the park's most troublesome species — humans.
"In recent weeks, visitors in the park have been engaging in inappropriate, dangerous and illegal behavior with wildlife," said Wenk in a press release. "In a recent viral video, a visitor approached within an arm’s length of an adult bison in the Old Faithful area. Another video featured visitors posing for pictures with bison at extremely unsafe and illegal distances," he added.
Here's one of the videos Wenk was describing. Why this woman thought it was safe to approach — and pet — a bison is beyond me. But sadly, the hundreds of thousands of people who have watched this video may now think it's safe and acceptable.
For decades, Yellowstone officials have studied the park's wide variety of flora and fauna, but little attention has been paid to understanding the park's most abundant — and damaging — species.
"The least-studied species of animal in Yellowstone National Park is the human and the visitor experience,” said Wenk. "And that’s what we’re trying to change."
Wenk also noted that social media encourages more people to break rules and put themselves and others at risk in an attempt to get that perfect Instagram shot or viral Facebook video.
"More people see what we term as inappropriate behavior," said Wenk. "So I think they wonder, ‘Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do the same thing or take advantage of the same situation?’"
Yellowstone's social scientist, Ryan Atwell, is studying the impetus behind this behavior and hopes to come up with new ways to present rules and safety information so tourists might actually heed their warnings.