Tourists gone wild 

After a series of questionable, dangerous and sometimes fatal incidents this summer, national—and state—parks start to take action

In May, two Canadians touring Yellowstone National Park pulled up to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in their Toyota Sequoia. Soon, Shamash Kassam and his adult son were explaining to law enforcement why they had a newborn bison in their trunk.

The Lamar Buffalo Ranch happens to be the site of a federal effort, 100 years ago, to repopulate Yellowstone with free-roaming bison, which at the time had dwindled to as few as 25 animals. A new herd purchased from private owners was bred and fed at the ranch for 50 years, then let free. So it's not implausible that the animal standing in the trunk of Kassam's car was a descendent of those raised at the ranch.

click to enlarge 1-i30cover.jpg

Thanks to the media attention that followed, we all know how this story ends. Park officials tried unsuccessfully to reunite the calf, which Kassam had found shivering alone next to a road, with its herd. The calf was euthanized, fueling what a Huffington Post headline would later describe as a "national shaming" of the tourists who didn't let nature run its course.

Those of us who know enough about Yellowstone not to pick up animal hitchhikers also know that bizarre encounters between tourists and wildlife are as old as America's national parks themselves. While Yellowstone officials can't recall another time a bison actually ended up inside a car, for decades visitors made a sport of feeding bears from the driver's seat, to humorous and sometimes violent ends. Other facepalm-inducing headlines to emerge from Yellowstone lately all had familiar rings: man dies after stepping in thermal feature; group of men tramples across Grand Prismatic Hot Springs to get video footage for a commercial; tourist is gored while posing for selfie with a bison.

Parks, by their very nature, are prone to such misadventures. What's different today is that they are more crowded than ever—and not just in Yellowstone. Glacier National Park is seeing record visitation, and so is Montana's system of state parks.

  • photo courtesy of National Park Service

The parks' soaring popularity is straining resources and putting more tourists in contact with wildlife and natural features. In the years to come, more visitors will mean more tourists behaving badly, more damage to the environment, more outrageous headlines and tougher competition for the Darwin Awards—that is, unless park managers find a way to keep up.

A new kind of selfie

Yellowstone turns to social science to understand growing herd of tourists

by Derek Brouwer

If recent trends hold, the number of tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park this July will be more than the total population of Montana. Tourists will outnumber park bison by a factor of 200 to 1, so the jostling for prime selfies is likely to be fiercer than ever.

While wildlife such as bison are studied closely by park scientists, the selfie snappers themselves remain a kind of mystery. Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk is fond of saying humans are the "least-studied species of animal in the park," but the quip may actually understate the degree to which officials lack information about the park's most visible inhabitants.

"We can make observations about what we're seeing in the park, but the truth is, we really don't know a lot about who our visitors are, why they're here, what their expectations are," says park spokeswoman Charissa Reid.

No longer can Yellowstone afford to overlook its human visitors, as the number of tourists soared by 17 percent last year, surpassing 4 million visits for the first time. Park staff were exhausted by season's end, after handing out 52,000 warnings for bad behavior and dealing with dramatic spikes in vehicle accidents and medical emergencies. This year, the National Park Service centennial is off to a raucous start. A series of high-profile tourist mishaps left one human and one bison calf dead. Tourist visits jumped another 10 percent through June.

As the park gets more crowded, officials want to take science's version of a selfie to understand more about the tourists who are jamming Yellowstone's roadways and boardwalks.

"Really it's just been the last couple of years that there's been this effort to capture a better snapshot of who our visitors are," Reid says, "mainly so that we can help them enjoy this place more thoroughly and more safely."

They're starting, more or less, from square one. The park service has no recent data on something as simple as where Yellowstone tourists come from, let alone why they act as they do.

A full-time social scientist, Ryan Atwell, is spearheading the research. His initial work has been small in scope—like dealing with the havoc wreaked on Yellowstone's restrooms. Bathroom troubles were among the issues that emerged from a series of debriefing interviews after the whirlwind 2015 season. In addition to long lines, staff reported dealing with more cracked toilet seats, apparently the result of international visitors unaccustomed to sitting atop them.

Officials responded by creating graphics instructing users how to properly sit on an American-style loo.

Reid says the initiative's long-term goals are more ambitious, aiming to inform management decisions as officials decide how to balance the park's dual missions of natural preservation and peoples' enjoyment that have become more tenuous as Yellowstone gets more crowded.

click to enlarge Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk calls humans the least-studied animal in the park. But before officials can study why visitors insist on standing too close to wildlife, they want to understand why they come to the park. - PHOTO COURTESY OF YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
  • photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk calls humans the least-studied animal in the park. But before officials can study why visitors insist on standing too close to wildlife, they want to understand why they come to the park.

Critics say the park is already jam-packed, yet point out that, contrary to federal law, Yellowstone, like most national parks, hasn't established a carrying capacity.

"The Park Service appears to be evolving to the position that there can never be too many visitors," said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a recent press release, "a position with which many visitors in long lines would disagree."

But Reid expects the social science work now underway in Yellowstone will test that hypothesis. This August, researchers will survey park visitors at entrance gates with an eye toward their impression of those "long lines."

"Maybe someone from Manhattan doesn't think it's crowded, whereas we're used to it being sparse around here," she says.

One topic researchers aren't ready to investigate is the role social media plays in shaping visitor behavior. Tales of visitors gored by bison while posing for selfies have gained national attention, but Reid says whether the technology is leading to an uptick in human-wildlife encounters remains unclear.

For now, officials are more focused on finding ways to connect and educate the growing herd of tourists. They updated signage to depict a more gruesome image of a visitor being gored, and in June the park introduced a Yellowstone mobile app. Among the app's features is a way for users to take a photo with a custom Yellowstone National Park border. The camera defaults to selfie mode.

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