Yellowstone fears visitors are too bold around animals

Jun 22, 2012

After a peaceful quarter century, bears in Yellowstone National park killed two visitors last summer. Now, park officials are adamantly warning visitors to forget the sense of security they feel at zoos and amusement parks because Yellowstone is a wild place. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Today in Yellowstone, someone will likely see a bear. It happens most every day in the summer, and usually the bear and the person walk away fine. Then last summer, for the first time since 1986, two encounters turned deadly. In one incident, a California hiker surprised a mother grizzly and her cubs. The following month, a bear killed a Michigan man who was camping in the park.

Mark Bruscino is a bear management biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He said the incidents were tragic, but a fatal encounter was a long time in coming.

MARK BRUSCINO: Twenty-five years without a fatal bear attack in the Greater Yellowstone Area was probably a pretty lucky period given the amount of interactions we have between bears and people.

MARTINEZ: That’s because the area’s grizzly population has rebounded rapidly since it was placed on the endangered species list in 1975… and the number of visitors to Yellowstone has climbed steadily in the same time, now more than 3 million per year.

The park posts warnings at each entrance and trailhead. It offers tips in free park newspapers and podcasts like “travel in groups” and “secure your food and garbage”.

AL NASH: Yellowstone is a wild place. This isn't a controlled environment.

Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash says it’s the park’s job to preserve the wilderness and educate visitors on how to keep themselves safe.

NASH: I fear that some visitors believe that if things were dangerous, we, the National Park Service, would somehow control it. That’s not the case.

MARTINEZ: Nash says some park visitors are taking their safety for granted and get much closer to bears than the park’s 100-yard-minimum distance. Bears generally don’t attack people unless they feel threatened, but getting too close can do the trick. On the road from Canyon Village to Mammoth Hot Springs, a man got out of his S-U-V and got within just a few yards from a black bear to snap a photo. He drove away unscathed.

At another spot, dozens of cars stopped in the middle of the road, and passengers got out to watch a black bear lumber by. Ranger Adam Willett saw the jam and stopped, calmly keeping the crowd away from the bear.

ADAM WILLETT: Yeah, unfortunately, people do try to get up close to them, pretty frequently.
MARTINEZ: What do you so about that?
WILLET: Sometimes you have to, you know, yell, get a little nasty or whatever.

MARTINEZ: Michael Manarkattu is taking the park’s messages to heart. He’s visiting from the U-K with his wife and two small children.

MANARKATTU: We know that we need to keep away. If we spot a bear, we were told not to look at it and sort of walk away as if we’ve not seen it. Ideally, they said, you need to go in a group so that you can make some noises you know the bear just generally doesn’t come to you.

MARTINEZ: One huge talking point among Yellowstone officials is bear spray. It’s basically heavy-duty mace that comes in a can and attaches to a belt holster. It can be more effective than a firearm at stopping a charging bear, as long as it’s on your belt and not in your car or backpack.

Although both bear attack victims last summer were experienced hikers, neither carried bear spray.

Yellowstone Bear Management Biologist Kerry Gunther says it’s especially important to be prepared toward the end of the summer, when the bears are in hyperphasia, a stage where they’re ravenously looking for food.

KERRY GUNTHER: They’re really trying to put on weight so they can live through the winter during hibernation. They’re not necessarily more aggressive, but they’re so intent on feeding that I believe they’re a little less wary, and unless you’re paying attention, you have a little more chance of surprising one up close because they’re so intent on feeding to put on weight.

MARTINEZ: Park spokesman Al Nash says Yellowstone is looking for even more ways to encourage visitors to protect themselves while being able to enjoy the park’s wilderness.

NASH: We do our best to protect them and the things they come to see, but we don't sanitize it. We cannot protect them from all the threats.

MARTIENZ: Modern-day zoo habitats can be pretty convincing, but people who make the trip to Yellowstone demand the real deal. So it’s up to visitors to take real precautions and stay safe.

For NPR News, I’m Rebecca Martinez in Laramie.