When I was an employee in Yellowstone National Park decades ago, the behavior of some tourists earned them the codename “touron” – part tourist, part moron. Today, the National Park Service needs to do more to save others from earning that name.
It’s only mid-May, and already Yellowstone Park has had its centennial marred by a number of infamous tourists. Stories of wildlife encounters and abuse of geothermal areas have spawned harsh criticism and condemnation from park supporters.
Some ignore the rules. One group that recently earned the “touron” name was a pack of young men who decided to walked out onto the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. Such behavior is not only dangerous but it destroys the geothermal features that have made the park famous. They knew that and deserve the public’s derision.
While some tourists misbehaved knowingly, others did so out of ignorance. The latter deserve a little more understanding than what they’ve received.
A month ago, video circulated of the first occurrence where woman walked up to and petted a park bison for several minutes. Then, there was news of a woman being gored in South Dakota’s Custer State Park after getting to close to a bison.
Most recently, social media sites have been filled with the story of some tourists that put a bison calf in their car because they were worried it was cold. Unfortunately. the calf had to be killed because it could not be reunited with its mother.
As the story went viral, outrage erupted. News site, Twitter and Facebook posts are filled with comments that the tourists were “stupid,” that they were “morons” or worse. Locals, in particular, like to point out what idiots other people are. What is the world becoming that tourists don’t know better, they cry.
But we who are fortunate enough to live in Montana and know how to act around wildlife – even though some still don’t - we need to be more kind.
In a perfect world, should they have known better? Yes. But many tourists don’t know better, any more than some of us would know how to avoid trouble in a New York City subway station. The people who picked up the calf obviously knew nothing about wildlife.
Does ignorance equate to innocence? No. But, is that their fault? If they had done the same thing for a wayward dog instead of a bison calf, they’d be commended. Obviously, if they were really worried that the calf was cold, their hearts were in the right place. If so, now that they are responsible for the calf’s death, they probably feel horrible and being castigated across the Internet just adds insult to injury. Have pity. What might have been a wonderful vacation will now blight their memories.
Yet, these are the kind of people the parks need – people who care about wildlife. If tourists were better educated, these stories might be less frequent. But the only education tourists get at park entrances is a bundle of flyers that contain warnings but which usually end up being tossed unread in the backseat as people hurry down the road, pushed by the impatient throngs behind them. This needs to change.
Nowhere else can people drive unhindered into an area so full of wildlife. The only thing similar is safari parks, such as the one at the San Diego Zoo. But there, visitors are strictly controlled: People are given safety briefings, are limited to traveling in park vehicles and are not allowed to leave the vehicle, let alone the road.
Closer to home, the National Bison Range in the Flathead Valley allows visitors to drive their own cars around a paved loop. But they must stop at a visitor center before entering the loop and are required to remain in their cars except at two locations set up as information points.
Park managers argue that the national parks belong to the American people, and visitors should be able to enjoy them without too much entanglement. But in return, the parks should be able to expect a certain level of responsibility, which is lacking in some cases. Obviously, problems with tourists are increasing.
Education must improve to keep wildlife safe. Aware of this, the park has hired one social scientist to educate visitors. Perhaps, Yellowstone Park in particular should create visitor centers where people must stop before they enter the park. Regular visitors would complain, but because few tourists bother to read pamphlets on their own, they should have to watch a short video explaining the importance of watching wildlife from afar. After that, if they make the same mistakes, they have surely earned the ire of the rest of us and penalties should be harsh.