When Tourists and Wildlife Collide: What We Need to Learn from the Bison Attacks

Aug 2, 2019

Two back-to-back attacks involving bison and teens in Yellowstone only further highlight an issue plaguing parks across the nation. Whether they mean to or not, visitors to national parks are constantly harassing, disturbing, or otherwise harming the native wildlife. 

In some cases, like the recent bison attacks, the danger is obvious. But in other incidents, the damage done to the wildlife is largely overlooked or simply not realized by the tourists at fault. Keep reading to learn the dangers of interacting with wildlife, and what you can do to protect our parks’ inhabitants.

“Saving” Baby Animals

One big mistake that many tourists to Zion and other national parks across the nation make is thinking that animals are more like us than they really are. Or more specifically, that their offspring are more like our own human babies. 

In Zion, one big issue has been with visitors thinking that they were rescuing abandoned fawns. In reality, mother deer often leave their babies for extended periods, sometimes even up to 12 hours, while they forage for food. The fawns may not have many defenses, but they do have one very important one; they are scentless. This means that as long as they stay where there mothers left them, often hidden in tall grass or under other cover, they are safe from predators.

But unknowing tourists often step in. Seeing the young animal on its own, they approach it, pick it up, and even feed it. They may place it in their vehicle and seek help from park officials, believing they have rescued an orphaned or abandoned creature. Oftentimes, these fawns cannot be reintroduced to their mother, and have to be cared for by humans until they reach an age at which they can be re-released.

It’s Not Just the Young Animals, Either

Baby animals aren’t the only creatures in the park that tourists are trying to save. They’re also feeding wildlife of all ages in droves, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. 

Feeding wildlife in any way is not only against the law, but can be deadly to animals. Wildlife in Zion and other parks may approach humans when food is involved. Among the most common are smaller creatures, like rock squirrels. But while visitors may think they are doing these animals a favor, they are actually causing them to form a dependency. Over time, they come to expect to be fed, which means that they may stop foraging and hunting altogether. They may also become aggressive towards humans as their fear of them lessens. This doesn’t just happen when animals are directly fed, either.

Campgrounds and picnic areas are popular spots to enjoy lunch or a snack in the park. Unfortunately, because many visitors aren’t great about hiding leftovers in animal-proof containers or throwing away trash, they are also popular spots for wildlife to forage for food. Leaving food behind can also cause animals to form a dependency as well. It’s also a chance for wildlife to get into large amounts of food that could make them very ill.

Animals that Seem Harmless Rarely Are

Most visitors to Zion and other parks in the region know that certain animals are dangerous to approach, like mountain lions or bears. But unfortunately, it’s often the seemingly harmless creatures that end up injuring tourists.

That was the case in the first of two bison attacks that occurred in Yellowstone in July. A group of around 50 tourists approached several bison who were grazing near Old Faithful. Whether the group thought that the bison were entirely harmless or were made brave by the number of people there is unclear. What is clear is that they underestimated the bison, one of which charged and tossed a 9-year-old girl into the air. Luckily, she escaped with only minor injuries.

From bison in Yellowstone to elk in the Grand Canyon, tourists often underestimate the danger that large, seemingly gentle land mammals pose. 

Getting in the Way of Natural Instincts

The second bison attack to occur in Yellowstone within just a week’s time underscored a different danger; getting in the way of an animal’s natural instincts. The teenager who was injured claimed to have stayed at the required 50 feet from the bison that injured him. But he also crossed between two male bison who had been fighting just moments earlier.

When you’re on vacation in the park, it’s easy to forget that the animals you see are continuing their normal, everyday routines. For those two bison, it was peak mating season, also known as rut. The bison were in the middle of competing when the teen crossed their paths. While these creatures are often harmless and leave humans alone, during rut they are known to be easily agitated and aggressive. But no matter what season it is, it’s always important to keep your distance.

Respecting the Wildlife that Call Our National Parks Home

National parks like Zion are home to rare and important species, some of which are endangered or not find anywhere else in the world. But while that means that a trip to one of these parks is a great chance to view them, it also comes with some responsibilities. 

Always maintain a safe distance. For small animals, like squirrels or reptiles, 50 feet is a safe distance. For larger wildlife, like deer or bighorn sheep, you should always stay at least 100 feet away. Dispose of any trash, and if you’re camping in the park, store your food in containers designed to keep animals out. And always remember to never feed, touch, or otherwise disturb wildlife.