Scientists in Yellowstone National Park are searching for answers to a perennially confounding question: Why do some visitors not recognize the potential danger of approaching wildlife such as these bison in the Hayden Valley. (Photo courtesy of Neal Herbert)

The bad news: most visitors in Yellowstone National Park have no concept what 25 yards (the minimum distance the park allows humans to approach bison) looks like. The good news: most people think 25 yards is actually more like 50 yards, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Montana.

Researchers randomly surveyed 850 people in the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park last year asking them to look at three unmarked pictures, one of a person five yards from a bison, one of someone standing 25 yards from a bison and one where the human was 50 yards away from the bison. People were asked to choose which picture they thought best represented 25 yards. Then they were asked which image represented the distance at which they’d prefer to view bison and which picture showed the distance where they would begin to feel unsafe watching the animal.

Ninety-four percent of the people surveyed identified the 50-yard picture as representing the 25-yard park regulation. Only 1 percent picked the picture with the person standing five yards away and about 5 percent picked the image depicting 25 yards.

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As for where people would like to view bison, 85.5 percent picked the picture depicting a 50-yard-distance, while 12 percent picked the photo showing 25 yards and 2.5 percent identified the picture with the person only five yards from the animal.

Most people, 41 percent, also chose the 50-yard picture to show the distance from the animal where they would start to feel unsafe, while 38.2 percent picked the 25-yard picture and 20.8 percent picked the image depicting five yards.

Signs, fliers and handouts can tell park visitors what to do, but without the 'why' they're incompletely effective. (Photo Courtesy of Jim Peaco)
Signs, fliers and handouts can tell park visitors what to do, but without the ‘why’ they’re incompletely effective. (Photo Courtesy of Jim Peaco)

So if so many people think they should stay 50 yards away from a bison, why are so many people getting too close to the animals?

“Viewing wildlife is a highly emotional experience,” Zach Miller, a research assistant at the University of Montana said. “And maybe some of that does cloud our reasonable and rational judgement.”

Most people follow rules and want to do the right thing, but there is some sort of disconnect when it comes seeing bison in the wild, he said. People might not believe the animal, which seems docile and slow, can quickly charge at a high speed and inflict serious or fatal injuries.

People from the West have a different understanding of wildlife than those from other places, Miller said. The National Park Service heavily promoted visiting the parks in urban areas like Los Angeles and Chicago and in countries that don’t have national parks like Yellowstone.

“Wild and wildness and wildlife might need more context than just ‘do not approach,’” Miller said. “We [westerners] take knowing that for granted.”

Miller thinks if people better understand wildlife — how the animals live, the roles wildlife plays in the ecosystem and why park wildlife rules exist — they will be more likely to respect the rules.

“The signs that say keep your distance from wildlife, that’s what to do,” he said. “But what drives human behavior is the why. It’s the motivation aspect. We need to not only tell them what to do, but why to do it.”

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A closely related question — why do people continue to approach bison, despite all the warnings? — sparked Miller’s involvement in the Hayden Valley survey last summer. Researchers approached random visitors and recorded whether people spoke enough English to take the survey and noted that 86 percent of those approached who were able agreed to participate. The findings from those participants, which have not yet been published in a scientific journal, are still preliminary.

Miller is now looking at the differences between North Americans’ responses and those of visitors from elsewhere in the world. He hopes his eventual report will help guide management strategies.

People were tangling with bison and falling into thermal features long before Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk first worked in the park in 1979. But the sheer volume of visitors today, and the diversity of cultures and languages they bring to the park, present a new set of challenges for managers trying to keep the public safe and informed.

Many people assume the wildlife milling along the road must be safe because, where they come from, humans and dangerous animals are simply never in close proximity. Others may base their bad decisions on the human behavior they see in the park. A visitor who watches someone approach wildlife without consequence, may think “it must be safe,” Wenk said. Eleven people might approach a bison before it decides to charge one.

Effectively educating people about the dangers of the park is a struggle. The park has tried communicating with people via social media and posting rules and regulations in hard-to-miss places. Managers have reached out to the 85 different bus companies that bring tours through the park requesting help and cooperation in teaching visitors the rules.

“But we can hand out all the newspapers in the world, or have all the info in the world on our website, but people still have to read it,” Wenk said.

Informed or not, there will always be people who break the rules. Wenk asks people to move back from animals daily and he’s been told more than once  when not in uniform to “mind his own business,” he said.

All the data in the world won’t prevent that kind of willful disregard, Miller said.

“It’s never going to be an elimination thing; it’s always going to be a reduction thing,” Miller said. “The people who are petting the bison on the head, I don’t know. I can’t explain that one.”

“The people who are petting the bison on the head, I don’t know. I can’t explain that one.” — Zach Miller, University of Wyoming research assistant. (Photo courtesy of Jim Peaco)
“The people who are petting the bison on the head, I don’t know. I can’t explain that one.” — Zach Miller, University of Wyoming research assistant. (Photo courtesy of Jim Peaco)

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I think it would be helpful if the park service could use an approximation like; extend your arm and if you can cover the animal’s image with your thumb, you are far enough away. They need something other than the numbers they have been using.