By Carrie Haderlie
SHERIDAN — Every summer, news reports, videos and photos of people doing ridiculous — even dangerous — things in Yellowstone National Park go viral. People cause damage to the park and get injured or killed, and often the events are shared on social media.
The “selfie” phenomenon, and perhaps the park’s most famous 2015 trend, the #bisonselfie, has changed many people’s experience of the wild. It used to be that the outcome of a visit to a national park was the visit itself, but in today’s age of self-documentation, the photo is the desired outcome, experts say.
“I find (the selfie phenomenon) somewhat unfortunate, because I think the selfie becomes the desired outcome rather than actually observing and experiencing the resource,” said Anna Chalfoun, assistant professor in the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and Physiology.
Neal Herbert, a photographer and spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park, said that when social media and nature intersect, people want to document every moment.
“We live in an age where self-documentation through social media has taken on giant proportions,” Herbert said.
While visitors to the park increase nearly every year, people are still mainly visiting landmark places like the Grand Prismatic and want to see bison and bears. Specifically, people want a photo of those things, he said.
Animal encounters include people being thrown by bison, attacked by elk and, in one peculiar 2016 case, a tourist put a bison calf in his vehicle to “rescue” it from the cold. The calf was euthanized because of to the encounter, which was widely mocked online.
These incidents are not happening because people are entering the back country where animals may be less habituated to humans, Herbert said. They are happening in the park’s busiest areas.
A general population that is disconnected from nature, along with animal habituation, doesn’t help, said John Tanaka, associate director of the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station and director of the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center at the University of Wyoming.
“When you have … tourists that really don’t know much about these animals that ‘look’ tame, it’s only a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Herbert pointed out that most people don’t live among wildlife or know how to behave around large mammals.
“I think that’s an aspect of this that doesn’t get talked about that much,” Herbert said. “The majority of people on the planet live in an urban environment. Sharing a landscape with thousands of large mammals (including) bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, grizzly bears — that is rare.”
People come to Wyoming and just don’t know how to behave, he said.
“It is a foreign world, and the only other time many people have been that close to an animal was in a zoo, where the animal was behind some sort of barrier,” Herbert said. “This is a different world entirely that people aren’t ready for.”
Jeffrey Beck of the University of Wyoming Department of Ecosystem Science and Management said that habituation of wild animals increases with greater human contact no matter the jurisdiction under which they live.
Some species, like white-tailed deer, habituate, while others, like sage grouse, avoid humans. Others, like common raven or the fox squirrel, thrive near humans. And, awkward as they may be, interactions between humans and animals likely reflect the general affinity many humans feel for wildlife.
“The problem is that those with naïve experience approach animals in an uneducated fashion, as if they believe animals will respond the way they think they should or wish they would,” Beck said. “Some of these unnatural interactions cross the boundaries of common caution and end up with either the humans, the animals they encounter, or both suffering.”
Yellowstone National Park has started a campaign called the Yellowstone Pledge, which encourages stewardship among tourists. Visitors are encouraged to use the hashtag #yellowstonepledge to identify photos that were taken responsibly, captioning a photo of a grizzly bear something like: “I took this from the safety of 100 yards or from a car,” Herbert said.
“We’re encouraging people to model good behavior and document it themselves,” Herbert said. “We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about it, and what we like about it is that it’s a positive way that we can invite people to help us by becoming stewards of the park rather than waving a finger and saying, ‘Don’t do that.’”
Chalfoun said individuals who live in more rural places and more regularly observe and encounter wildlife likely have more experience with wild animals. That may lead to an understanding about a particular animal’s behavior and the risk of getting too close, whereas individuals who live in more urban areas may not have that context.
Suzan Guilford of the Bighorn National Forest said many of the animals that draw tourists to Yellowstone aren’t present in the Bighorn Mountains, including grizzly bear and bison. The Bighorns also don’t experience the same volume of tourist traffic, so animal incidents are more rare.
Tanaka said a decline in hunting, which is not allowed in some places, may mean animals are less likely to avoid humans. Hunting is allowed in the Bighorns, meaning animals are more likely to avoid human contact in the national forest.
Both Herbert and Guliford suggested Leave No Trace principles when visiting any of Wyoming’s public lands.
“Some people really take the time to learn about animals, and how to camp in the forest using the Leave No Trace principles,” Guliford said.
And in today’s day and age, Leave No Trace may also means letting go of that perfect selfie and leaving a location untagged for the safety of the animals — and humans — involved.