Reader Participation Day: Do National Parks Provide Ample Wildlife Warnings to Visitors?

Among the brochures you often receive when you enter national parks are park newspapers and, in some cases, leaflets that address specific issues, such as wildlife concerns.

At Yellowstone National Park, for instance, among the handouts are flyers on keeping your distance from bison, which, while looking docile, don't like you getting too close to them.

But in the wake of last week's fatal grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone, and last fall's fatal goring by a mountain goat of a hiker in Olympic National Park, are park officials doing enough to educate visitors on wildlife?

If you plan an overnight backcountry trip in Yellowstone, you have to sit through a briefing that includes a video touching on traveling in bear country. The video instructs you on how to keep clean campsites and how to hike -- in groups, and making noise -- to avoid sudden confrontations with bears.

Should this sort of introduction to backcountry travel be standard for all park visitors? After all, in parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton and others, the "backcountry" boundary can be just feet from your parked car.

Granted, sitting each and every park visitor down to a safety video would be impossible. But is there some other way that parks could better inform visitors about wildlife issues, or should visitors be expected to educate themselves?

Comments

My opinion is that people need to take responsiblity for themselves. The parks have enough funding issues without having to figure out how to tell everyone that you are in the middle of a forest with wild animals and to be careful.

I agree that we do have a personal responsibility when in the parks. I know the Parks do the very best to remind us about wildlife. For example, when they had a car break-in by bears at a park I was visiting, they put a flyer in every room of the lodge reminding people to empty their cars. I have watched Rangers chase people away from Elk at Yellowstone and doing a good job establishing perimeters around bears up in trees at Great Smokey Mountain. Of course every fatality is a tragedy, but the very fact that they are relatively rare is what makes them newsworthy in the first place. I am sure a lot people die in auto accidents on the way to a national park then die inside of one, especially due to wildlife.

I agree with Erik. If I were to travel to Europe for example, I would do thorough research and gather information that would be important to know. Even if the current travel information that visitors get when entering parks were revised and "amped up", I'm certain that most people would continue to leave it, unopened on their dash.

I wonder if better signs at trails would help.? Of course there will always be people who believe that they are above rules and regulations and that it only applies to everyone else...

Craig makes a good point; the very low number of these fatalities in and of itself show that more people are informed and that the parks take this seriously.

I completely agree with all the previous comments. And even when you do go out of your way to educate, some people just will not listen. My own sister got in trouble at Shenandoah. She had come up to visit me and showed up for my "bear talk" where I talked about bear safety for 20min. She then left with a bag of marshmallows in hand and fed some bears, with my 4 year old niece in tow!

I think Craig said it very well. Let's not have a knee-jerk reaction to a rare event, despite that seeming to be exactly what the media wants. Yellowstone is crawling with Grizzlies (comparatively) and innundated with people, yet this is the first person to die by bear in a quarter century. I think that says that the parks are doing a very good job. Accidents happen and some people will always be idiots despite the warnings. (No offense to your sister, Ranger Lady!)

HAHA! No offense taken Kirby, I have to agree that she was an idiot in this case. And it gave me a chance to get revenge for all she did to me in childhood...I turned her in!

Other examples Ranger lady are the residents of bizillion dollar houses at the base of the San Gabriel Mts. (Near Pasadena) thinking it cute to feed the Black Bears there BEAR CLAWS (pastry). Contractors there hired to remove fire fuel with goats had no end to problems with bears, with no fear and a welfare mentality, lol!

I agree with everyone; the Parks' budgets cannot babysit every visitor. Can you imagine Six Flags Over Whatever handing out a brochure to every rider of every ride saying you might get a heart attack on this?

I agree with the comment that visitors need to be responsible for their own actions / and educate themselves. How often do we get the brochures at the gate and read them when we get home from our trip. Most visitors have no concept of wildlife's ability to protect themselves and thier young. One of the best newspaper pages I ever saw was the back cover on the Banff National Park newspaper. It was basically the a rundown of inncidents in the park, everything from moving violations to wildlife conflicts, some were rather graphic, including SAR and recoveries, but it was a good wakeup call as to what can happen when you don't respect the power of nature.

I agree with everyone - no matter what you do or say, a lot of people don't listen. Anyone who hikes in the remote areas should talk to a ranger first and then they'd know to make noise or talk loudly whenever they're out. They would have alerted any wildlife to their presence and avoided scaring them an causing an attack. But again, a lot of people don't listen.

Anon @12:48 mentioned a list of incidents at Banff National Park and I've seen some parks that do go for the 'shock factor' to try and educate visitors on what can happen. My fiance works at Grand Canyon and he was telling me about this one visitor who was going to hike down to Phantom Ranch and back in one day and wasn't starting until noon. There are signs up everywhere in the park telling of specific incidents where people have died, but still some don't listen.

I pretty much disagree with many of the comments above.

1) Parks are places where people who may have no prior experience with wildlife can come in direct contact with wild creatures. It is appropriate to the mission of the Park Service to provide basic education about how to behave in these situations, just as we provide basic orientation to natural and cultural features through interpretive exhibits and talks.

2) If the education that parks are currently providing is failing to prevent dangerous situations from developing, it is appropriate for parks to examine whether the educational pathways could be improved (e.g. replace handouts that don't get read until too late, if at all, with videos that must be watched before a backcounty permit is issued).

3) Such education is not only intended to protect people. It also protects wild animals that they may encounter. Animals that come into conflict with visitors frequently end up dead as a result. Simply stating that people should take responsibility for their own safety ignores the other half of the story. Besides, there are plenty of people whose idea of taking responsibility for their own safety comes down to little more than carrying a loaded gun wherever they go.

4) The low number of reported [human] fatalities in parks proves only that the number of human fatalities from wildlife encounters in parks is low. It does not prove that the "parks are doing a good job" or that "people are informed." Is the fatality rate from similar encounters any higher outside the parks? What other factors might be responsible for differences in fatality rates in parks vs. the surrounding area?

5) The goal is always zero preventable fatalities, for both humans and wildlife. Any fatality, no matter how rare, should be examined to see if it holds any lessons for how to do a better job of protecting people and wildlife from each other in the future.

Now to address Kurt's general question: "Are park officials doing enough to educate visitors on wildlife?" Enough is a relative term; if we are spending more time and money educating visitors about [the dangers of] wildlife, then we are spending less on something else. I don't believe this question can be answered simply. It needs to be addressed on a park-by-park basis, specific to the kinds of wildlife and visitors at that park, and the measures that park is currently taking to reduce dangerous conflicts between the two.

Kurt's specific question was: "Is there some other way [besides requiring day visitors to sit through a safety video] that parks could better inform [day] visitors about
wildlife issues, or should visitors be expected to educate themselves?" I think it's a good question, and some of the commenters put forth relevant suggestions (e.g. strategically deploy rangers at the boundary between frontcountry and backcountry to monitor and intervene if necessary between naive visitors and wildlife; provide incident reports with graphic details in the "newspaper" handout visitors receive when entering the park). Each park should have a list of potential strategies such as these and regularly review which strategies are appropriate uses of time and money for that park.

As a Park Service employee, I am always interested in creative suggestions for how to keep the two halves of our mission (visitors and "resources") safe from each other while they interact. As something of a techno geek, I see all kinds of interesting possibilities on the horizon. You may not want to encounter technology when you visit a park, but I'd wager that most of you still carry a cell phone in your pocket. What if your cell phone could provide you with useful information if you got too close to a dangerous situation? What if your cell phone could warn the animals you were approaching? What if rangers could monitor the movements of both animals and visitors and deploy themselves only when the two got too close? These are just pie-in-the-sky thoughts, but this is the kind of thinking we need to do to get beyond older strategies such as handouts that cost money and trees and don't necessarily get read anyway.

If you are a competent outdoorsperson in search of true wilderness, don't worry about my scandalous ideas - Alaska awaits you. But parks like Yellowstone and Glacier attract vast numbers of naive visitors who have every right to explore the wonders of their parks, and it is within the mission of the Park Service to try to keep them and the park both safe during those encounters. Thanks for asking the question, Kurt.

I agree with most of the above. I just happened to be in Olympic last October hours after the unfortunate man was gored by the mountain goat. A tragic accident by anyone's imagination. I believe the parks should post something on a trail of known dangers or to investigate reports of known agressive animals and take action, if warranted and I firmly believe they do their best.
We day hike everytime we go to the parks -up to 15 miles per day. I know my risks because I research ahead of time and take appropriate precautions. Can I be attacked-absolutely! That is a risk I choose to take and attempt to minimize. You cannot educate or regulate stupidity. I recently saw parents take 6-8 year olds on Angels Landing in Zion-absoloute stupidity in action even with the warning signs. Every National Park I have been to alert visitors to the dangers. It is their responsibilty to recognize and adhere to those alerts and warnings. Quite honestly, I worry more about human predators than the wildlife in our great national parks-keep up the good work NPS! I just wish I could designate all my tax dollars to you.

Rangerlady mentioned the person who wanted to hike to Phantom Ranch and back in a day and didn't start until noon. I was at a ranger program on the North Rim and a young man announced that he was planning to hike to Phantom and back on the morrow. The ranger menioned that it was 28 miles round trip and the kid said, "Outstanding!". The ranger then invited him to come to the next night's program: Death in Grand Canyon. The kid walked out on him. Even one-on-one advice is often ignored.

On a side note, I happened to be at the medical clinic on the South Rim the next afternoon. The ambulances were rotating in and out on a regular basis, but I didn't spot the young man in question. Of course, by 6 PM he might have still been on the trail.