New reporting from The Associated Press paints a chaotic picture of America’s national parks, just as the National Park Service celebrates its 100 anniversary.
Not only are record numbers of visitors testing parks’ staff, infrastructure, and wildlife, but it seems many of those visitors haven’t been behaving themselves.
Stories of gawkers coming too close to animals abound, as well as more flagrant violations like the tourists who were caught stealing water from a “thermal feature” at Yellowstone.
All told, park rangers in July had to handle 11,000 incidents at the nation’s ten most popular parks. Rangers increasingly have to deal with “illegal camping, vandalism, theft of resources, [and] wildlife harassment” along with their usual work of managing traffic and finding lost hikers.
Even small transgressions can have lasting effects on wildlife and fauna, and put visitors in real danger. In June a visitor to Yellowstone strayed from the officially sanctioned path and died after falling into a scalding hot spring.
In another much-publicized incident at Yellowstone, tourists thought a baby bison looked cold so they put it in the back of their SUV and drove it to a ranger station. Rangers were ultimately unable to reintegrate the bison with its herd and had to euthanize it.
While visitors taking wildlife into their cars isn’t exactly commonplace, reports of people inappropriately interacting with animals are on the rise. Rangers say that most people just don’t believe that wild animals are dangerous — one woman who spoke to the Associated Press said she wanted to feed a grizzly bear a cookie.
The story quotes Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk saying: “I can’t tell you how many times I have to talk to people and say, ‘Step back. There’s a dangerous animal,’ and they look at me like I have three heads.”
And, it’s getting worse. Ranger-issued warnings were up by a full 20 percent between 2014 and 2015.
“It’s more like going to a carnival,” says Yale University professor and frequent researcher at Yellowstone Susan Clark who worries recent stories of people behaving badly are only going to get worse, “It’s really, really messy, and nasty.”