BILLINGS -- Cellphones may be responsible for an increase in the number of bison-related injuries to Yellowstone National Park visitors last year.
That’s a theory raised by Cara Cherry in a recently published report. Cherry is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigator assigned to the National Park Service.
With the short focal length of cellphones, and the increase in the social activity of posting photos while traveling, people may be ignoring park warnings about keeping their distance from bison, Cherry writes.
Injuries to photographers getting too close to Yellowstone bison is nothing new. A 2003 report published in the journal “Yellowstone Science” called bison the most dangerous animals in the park, injuring more people between 1980 and 1999 than any other wild beast.
During that time, bison “made contact with” people 79 times. One year, not identified in the study, there were 13 incidents of bison hitting tourists. In comparison to that, last year seems fairly tame with only five people injured, yet three of those five were seriously hurt.
Two of those three seriously harmed people had been taking photos and moved to within 3 to 6 feet of the bison. In 10 of 36 incidents identified in one period in the 2003 study, the people injured approached to within 2 to 51 feet of bison to photograph or pose with the animals for a photo.
It is illegal for park visitors to get within 100 yards of bears and wolves or 25 yards of other wildlife, including bison. An adult male bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run at speeds up to 35 mph.
A blunt message
After last year’s incidents, and with more visitors expected this year as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, Yellowstone has changed some of its messaging to try and get visitors’ attention, said Amy Bartlett, park spokeswoman.
“People just need to stay away the required distance,” she said. “We’re trying to be more blunt about it.”
Some of that new messaging is directed at bus companies that bring large numbers of tourists all at once into parks like Yellowstone. Bartlett said a new message loaded onto a thumb drive will be given to bus companies to play on their approach to Yellowstone. One will be recorded in the Mandarin language.
There are also new messages on the 1610 AM radio station that broadcasts park information. These are in addition to posted messages at visitor centers and handouts given to bus passengers in five different languages and newspapers in 10 different languages given to automobile passengers when they enter the park.
Rick Wallen, a bison biologist for Yellowstone, said the park does a good job of disseminating its safety messages, but people often choose to ignore the advice. When they see a bison and want to capture a photo, the temptation is too great for them.
“More distance is better,” he said. “Foolish behavior leads to potential injury. People on vacation tend to leave their thinking caps at home.”
Keep safe distance
Especially when encountering bison in developed areas like Old Faithful, tourists may expect those animals to be tamer, Bartlett said, and not give them the wide berth necessary.
“They need to move away, alter their plans and turn around to keep the required distance,” she said.
Last year, more than 4 million people visited Yellowstone, a record high. At that time, the park contained a bison population of about 4,800 animals, down only slightly from a record high in 2014. More bison and more people in the same place are bound to occasionally run into each other.
Some of the stranger incidents reported in the 2003 study were a woman inside a phone booth when a bison butted the structure, two people petting or feeding a bison when it charged and one photographer who was trampled while lying on the ground. The attack ended with the bison sitting on the man. Another man was thrown 15 feet into the air, did a flip and landed in a tree.