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When Yellowstone Wildlife Injures Humans, We Need To Keep Own Behavior In Check

In the wake of a bison goring, maybe it's time to reflect again on risk, wildness and how we comport ourselves in responding to tragedy

Not fun or games: a park visitor stands on a boardwalk near Old Faithful as a bison lumbers past at close range. Bison are the most dangerous animals for people in America's first national park. Photo courtesy Arnie Spencer/NPS/#18950d
Not fun or games: a park visitor stands on a boardwalk near Old Faithful as a bison lumbers past at close range. Bison are the most dangerous animals for people in America's first national park. Photo courtesy Arnie Spencer/NPS/#18950d

by Todd Wilkinson

It’s been one of the damndest kinds of human behavior to witness—and witness it I have for nearly five full years—as Mountain Journal built its large and engaged audience on Facebook.

Whenever a person gets injured by a wild animal in Yellowstone or somewhere else in the expansive public land West MoJo covers—whether by grizzly, bison, elk or other creature—some people seem to cheer. Owed to schadenfreude or self-righteousness or perhaps it's just being a reflection of these toxic divisive times, a few seem to derive pleasure in hearing about the misfortunes of others.

Eyebrow raising, too, is how the tenor of discourse in the digital town square—the modern version of spectators shouting from cheap seats in the Roman Coliseum— changes abruptly if the injured person dies.

It's happened with a number of fatal grizzly bear maulings.

Mean-spiritedness often gets temporarily muted, except when trolls are involved and need to be banned; condolences are offered in mass outpouring; and, in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy, even the most outspoken promotors of the Darwin Awards do something that has become ever rarer: showing human compassion, which does not have to mean displaying less compassion for wildlife.

At that inflection point, no longer do most social media commenters write, thoughtlessly, that the human had it coming, deserving what they got. It is in this empathetic pause of common reflection that people realize how this kind of wildness only still exists in smallish portions of the West.  For a moment, they are able to look past the crowded theme park-like cliché of Yellowstone and discern that, far from it being a human orchestration of Westworld, wildness is a place capable of humbling hubris.

Rest assured the same kind of vile fulmination flows from people who wish ill things to happen to environmentalists—especially to defenders of grizzlies and wolves—as it does with animal rights activists saying all hunters ought to be hunted.  To share almost any story on social media is to affirm that it's often mighty hard to foster a civil discussion.

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On the morning of Memorial Day 2022, a young woman from Ohio, 25 years old, in the early prime of her life, was gored by a bison as she strolled along a boardwalk in Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park. According to the press release offered by Yellowstone officials, she was tossed 10 feet in the air.  She was evacuated and her condition remains unknown.

Initially, when news first broke of the encounter, she was roundly ridiculed for venturing too close to the large post-Pleistocene icon of America’s oldest national park. If you want to get a taste of the flavor of comments, go to Mountain Journal’s Facebook page now and read them for yourself.

Before one judges, consider that the impetuous reactions from most were not likely—if we are giving them the benefit of the doubt—intended to be cruel. Often it is instead a cathartic acknowledgment that the space of wild animals needs to be respected. Rallying on behalf of wildlife—recognizing animal sentience and not treating species other than ourselves merely as “harvestable natural resources” or prop curiosities—is actually only a fairly recent advancement in the thinking of Homo sapiens.

In its press release, Yellowstone emphasized a fact that is included in the pamphlets and fliers given to visitors as they pass through the park gates. “Wildlife in Yellowstone are wild and can be dangerous when approached,” the press release reminded, and it repeated the legal spatial mandates that exist in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks: visitors are required to maintain at least a 25-yard (75-foot) distance between themselves and bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes and at least 100 yards (300 feet) from bears and wolves.

Indeed, neither Yellowstone, nor Grand Teton nor the other public wildlands in Greater Yellowstone are Disneyland. And this is precisely why Greater Yellowstone and its unparalleled array of large mammal inhabitants stands apart.

But here, let’s reflect on what that means. It means the animals are not tame. It means they are self-willed and mostly uncontrolled.  It means they are larger than people. As a tenet of personal responsibility, it means that in order to minimize the possibility of us getting injured or injuring them we are required to arm ourselves not with guns but solid information. It means that we increase our ecological literacy, which is to say becoming aware of the natural history of other beings that are not robots or creations of artificial intelligence or virtual reality.
This Yellowstone tourist, who moved too close to a mother grizzly and cubs, darts away after the adult bear made a bluff charge. The 25-year-old visitor from Carol Stream, Illinois, was banned from Yellowstone and required to pay more than $2,000 in fines. Photo courtesy Yellowstone Facebook page/Darcie Addington
This Yellowstone tourist, who moved too close to a mother grizzly and cubs, darts away after the adult bear made a bluff charge. The 25-year-old visitor from Carol Stream, Illinois, was banned from Yellowstone and required to pay more than $2,000 in fines. Photo courtesy Yellowstone Facebook page/Darcie Addington

Wild lives have the potential to wipe smugness from the face of any arrogant, self-absorbed person who does not check their own ego at the door.  Sometimes, even the reverent, respectful and unprepared are reminded of that with devastating consequences.

The point is not to mock others when it happens but rather more fully appreciate that such wildness still exists in the 21st century—even after decades of litigious, opportunistic lawyers seeking to blame, sue and profit on misadventure, and frightened government agencies being forced to buff the edges off of danger. In essence, the tendency has been to eviscerate—or make antiseptic— the very things that make wild places wild and which summon us closer with hearts in full palpitation.

° ° ° °

Yellowstone offers an informative page on how visitors can reduce their chances of injury from wildlife (namely bears, bison, elk and wolves) and while navigating through a landscape where the forces of nature rule. The biggies with regard to wildlife are keep your distance, don’t feed the animals, keep your dog in the car and in addition to carrying bear spray knowing how to use it.  

Obviously, sincere sympathies are offered to the humans who get hurt or killed.  They are somebody’s beloved sons and daughters, moms, dads and good personal friends. They did not come to Yellowstone and Grand Teton with any notion of being mauled or gored. Enthusiastic, they made the trek because the allure of wild nature matters to them and, in today's world, the scarcity of such places in the Anthropocene mean most humans are out of their element.
“More people in the park have died from drowning (121 incidents), burns (after falling into hot springs, 21 incidents), and suicide (26 incidents) than have been killed by bears…The probability of being killed by a bear in the park (8 incidents) is only slightly higher than the probability of being killed by a falling tree (7 incidents), in an avalanche (6 incidents), or being struck and killed by lightning (5 incidents).”
What’s also essential to understand is that such negative encounters are actually exceedingly rare; that maintaining awesome wildness is not so much a matter of “wildlife management” but human management, and we humans often create trouble for both wildlife and those in uniform who virtuously look after them.

So, what about bison—how dangerous are they? While most visitor worry is directed toward bears, bison are actually the most dangerous animal in Yellowstone.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a peer-reviewed scientific review of human injuries caused by bison in Yellowstone.  “Since 1980, bison have injured more pedestrian visitors to Yellowstone National Park than any other animal. After the occurrence of 33 bison-related injuries during 1983–1985, the park implemented successful outreach campaigns to reduce the average number of injuries to 0.8/year,” the paper’s authors write.  

That number has risen since the analysis was made. But the researchers, when it was written, also cited the advent of a new phenomenon that, in some ways, has undermined the great educational outreach efforts made by the national parks. “The popularity of smart phone photography with its limited zoom capacity and social media sharing of selfies might explain why visitors disregard park regulations and approach wildlife more closely than when traditional camera technology was used.”

Yes, revolutionary hand-held technology that alters human behavior has actually resulted in more people abandoning common sense, turning their backs to wildlife which are close by, and then posing for a selfie to get the animal in the frame.

Rangers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton have their hands full trying to manage wildlife jams along the park highways. In Jackson Hole, public excitement surrounding grizzlies, namely mother bear 399, has put the Grand Teton Park “wildlife brigade” into a tough spot trying to prevent people from doing extraordinarily dumb things in their zeal to see bears and capture the experience on camera.

A few years ago, Yellowstone’s senior bear biologist Kerry Gunther and co-author Hopi E. Hoekstra published a paper in the journal Ursus that examined the causes of human-bear incidents in Yellowstone up through 1994. The review noted how better garbage disposal methods in and around Yellowstone, coupled with a clamp down on human feeding of bears habituated to eating human foods, cut down on human injuries in the frontcountry.

However, the authors also note: “Despite the success of the 1970 bear management program in reducing the number of bear-inflicted human injuries in the park, an average of 1 bear-inflicted human injury/year still occurs. These injuries most often involve surprise encounters between backcountry hikers and female grizzly bears with young. It will be difficult to reduce the frequency of this type of injury, especially if both backcountry recreational activity and the grizzly bear population in Yellowstone National Park continue to increase. Public education programs informing hikers how to avoid surprise encounters and how to react to encounters and attacks once they occur may be the most useful tool in further decreasing the number and severity of bear-inflicted human injuries in the park.”

In 2021, a 25-year-old woman from Carol Stream, Illinois, unwittingly made national news after she was captured on video remaining too close to a Yellowstone grizzly mother with cubs and was bluff charged by the adult bear. Pleading guilty to a number of charges, Samantha Dehring spent four days in jail, was banned from Yellowstone for a year and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and make a $1,000 community service contribution to the Yellowstone Forever Wildlife Protection Fund,

“Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park are, indeed, wild. The park is not a zoo where animals can be viewed within the safety of a fenced enclosure. They roam freely in their natural habitat and when threatened will react accordingly,” stated Acting US Attorney Bob Murray in a news release issued by Yellowstone. “Approaching a sow grizzly with cubs is absolutely foolish. Here, pure luck is why Dehring is a criminal defendant and not a mauled tourist.”
 “Approaching a sow grizzly with cubs is absolutely foolish. Here, pure luck is why Dehring is a criminal defendant and not a mauled tourist.” —Acting US Attorney Bob Murray 
There has been roughly a half dozen fatal incidents with grizzlies outside Yellowstone in the last decade and a half. For a full overview of deaths caused by all bears, click here.

How perilous are bears otherwise?  “Since 1979, Yellowstone has hosted over 118 million visits,” the park states. “ During this time, 44 people were injured by grizzly bears in the park.”

But to show how rare such an encounter is, the park put it in perspective. Chances of being attacked by a grizzly in developed areas, roadsides, and boardwalks in Yellowstone: 1 in 59.5 million visits; chances while in a roadside campground; 1 in 26.6 million overnight stays; chances while camped in the backcountry: 1 in 1.7 million overnight stays;  chances while hiking in the backcountry: 1 in 232,613 person travel days. Put altogether, the chances of having a grizzly encounter overall: 1 in 2.7 million visits.

The park notes that aggressive bears rank low on a list of possible sources of injury.  “Since Yellowstone was established in 1872, eight people have been killed by bears in the park,” Yellowstone notes. “More people in the park have died from drowning (121 incidents), burns (after falling into hot springs, 21 incidents), and suicide (26 incidents) than have been killed by bears…The probability of being killed by a bear in the park (8 incidents) is only slightly higher than the probability of being killed by a falling tree (7 incidents), in an avalanche (6 incidents), or being struck and killed by lightning (5 incidents).”

The irony of potential peril is that it possesses the potential of making us feel more alive. Lucky are we to still have nature preserves we enter at our own risk. For those who come into harm's way, let us resist the temptation to debase ourselves by being unkind. Sometimes when things happen in Yellowstone, the could happen to any of us.

NOTE: Todd Wilkinson's longstanding column, "The New West," appears every week at Mountain Journal.







Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the summer 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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