Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Yellowstone bison calfIt was a “facepalm moment” for everyone concerned.

A few days ago, a couple of foreign tourists to Yellowstone National Park decided that a bison calf looked cold. They put the calf in the back of their van to warm up. When park rangers tried to return the calf to its mother, the herd wouldn’t accept it. Rather than allow the young bison to starve to death, rangers euthanized it — unpleasant, to be sure, but necessary under the circumstances.

Since that recent unfortunate event, the Terribly Concerned have clucked and tut-tutted their high-minded little heads off. To them, the incident was evidence that too many of The Great Unwashed are being allowed into Yellowstone and other national parks. Rather than risk the life of some other bison calf, bear cub, wolf cub, mule deer fawn or elk calf, the Terribly Concerned are proposing that some national parks might be better off if — well, if people were kept out of them.

Excuse me? Weren’t national parks created specifically for people’s recreational benefit?

It is true that the sheer volume of people sometimes causes problems. The main road through Yosemite National Park, for instance, becomes a giant traffic jam during the park’s high season. Wildlife in Yellowstone are often crowded and harassed by nature-ignorant visitors.

As bad as those things are, though, I don’t believe the answer is to put a virtual plate-glass cover around parks in order to save them from “the rabble.”

Traffic problems can be engineered away. Human ingenuity knows no bounds, and solutions can be found for most any problem.

As long as people remain ignorant about wildlife, however, conflicts will continue to occur. Wild animals go where they want to go and do what they want to do. People might encounter them anywhere. Tourists who don’t know how to deal with animals will inevitably make mistakes. Sometimes, as with the bison calf, the animals suffer the consequences.

At other times, the humans do.

The first time I visited Yellowstone National Park, in 1984 or thereabouts, the ranger at the gate handed me a flyer about the park’s wildlife. The flyer warned that bison killed and injured more visitors than all other species combined.

“Is that really the case?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” the ranger replied. “Just last week, we had a visitor who decided to take a picture of a big bull bison that happened to be lying beside the road. The man didn’t want a picture of a bison lying down, he wanted a picture of one standing up. So he walked over to the bison and kicked it in the rear end. The bison whirled around and killed him on the spot.”

Some people can’t be saved from their own ignorance. For them, perhaps a Darwinian approach is the way to go.