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What's Being Done To Curb Dangerous Behavior At Yellowstone?


It's peak tourist season at Yellowstone National Park, which also is a time for accidents, some of them fatal. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney went to Yellowstone to see what the park is doing to curb dangerous behavior.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: When you drive into Yellowstone, the park offers a radio broadcast.


JEN: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Yellowstone, the world's first national park. My name's Jen (ph).

ERIC: And I'm Eric (ph)

JEN: Stay tuned because we have some great tips to help you plan your visit.

WHITNEY: Jen and Eric cheerfully explain things like entrance fees and fishing regulations. But there's one topic where they don't joke around.


ERIC: Safety point number one.

JEN: No selfies with wildlife. Seriously, don't do it.

WHITNEY: Last summer, at least five Yellowstone visitors were gored by Buffalo while trying to take selfies, or just get too close. And the dangerous behavior doesn't stop there. Pete Webster, Yellowstone's chief ranger, says they now see...

PETE WEBSTER: People taking selfies while driving and having a bison on the edge of the road and driving past and then taking a selfie. So you can't make this stuff up is what we say.

WHITNEY: Like the people who put the baby bison calf in their SUV. They said where they're from in Africa, game parks take in abandoned wildlife.

WEBSTER: We get visitors from all over the world, from all different cultures, from all different lifestyles, from all different environments - urban environments. They just don't know how to act around here.

WHITNEY: Granted, most people's around here doesn't include wild elk the size of horses grazing on the lawn in front of the post office. That's common at park headquarters and can be dangerous.

Visitors are offered rules and safety warnings in seven languages delivered across multiple formats. But how do you really prepare people for things like this?


WHITNEY: That is a pit of boiling, hot mud - big as a bath tub - just out there in the forest in Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin. And this thing that sounds like a dragon breathing...


WHITNEY: It's one of the many holes in the ground here that can blow out great clouds of scalding, sulfur-scented steam.

There are park service warning signs all over this geyser basin. Still, a 23-year-old man from Oregon died here in May. Breaking the rules, he left the trail and fell into a hot spring. The water was scalding and highly acidic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You see the smoke already.

WHITNEY: Here at the famous Old Faithful Geyser, hundreds of people line the long, wooden boardwalk around it. And on display is Yellowstone's response to dangerous visitor behavior - education, reprimand and punishment.

Bored kids are dangling their legs over the edge of the boardwalk waiting for Old Faithful to blow. A ranger strolls by.

UNIDENTIFIED PARK RANGER: Hey, folks, we have rodents of all kinds. We also have one species of rattles.

WHITNEY: That's the education part. Next comes reprimand.

UNIDENTIFIED PARK RANGER: Ma'am, I need you on the path, please.

WHITNEY: And some visitors get punishment. In June, a tourist from China was fined $1,000 for trying to collect water from a park hot spring.

Yellowstone now sees more than 4 million visitors a year. Park superintendent Dan Wenk says they've started taking a scientific approach to keeping them safe.

DAN WENK: The least studied animal or species in Yellowstone National Park has been the human.

WHITNEY: Wenk says the park is now engaged in robust social science research. They're trying to figure out how to better handle people who want to take drive-by bison selfies and prepare for any other dangerous behavior the future may hold. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Whitney
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