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Yellowstone bison goring incidents highlight America's decreasing awareness of nature

Humans may think themselves apex predators, but they remain quite vulnerable. Meanwhile, wildlife is feeling more pressure than ever.
Image: A bison walks past tourists on June 22, 2022 at Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
A bison walks past tourists on June 22, at Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming. George Frey / Getty Images file

Bison are oh-so-fluffy, ambling, plant-eating animals that have long captured the world’s attention because of their majestic dignity. Increasingly, however, they also make headlines because of dangerous run-ins with tourists. Already this summer we’ve seen two high-profile bison gorings at Yellowstone, both caught on video.

As a resident Montanan, professional bison conservationist and neighbor of nearby Yellowstone National Park, I can understand why people feel the urge to touch these massive mammals.

As a resident Montanan, professional bison conservationist and neighbor of nearby Yellowstone National Park, I can understand why people feel the urge to touch these massive mammals. They are a sight to behold — both undeniably cute and seemingly oblivious to our presence. However, as a biologist, I assure you that they are keenly aware of our approach. They can and will respond with lightning-fast reflexes if we get too close.

Indulge me for a minute. The average NFL lineman weighs around 310 pounds, and the league’s fastest player has been clocked at about 23 miles per hour. In comparison, a bison can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and run more than 35 miles per hour. But unlike in the NFL, there isn’t a referee to blow the whistle when a bison feels threatened. They charge until the threat has been diminished.

Recent and ongoing injuries from bison gorings in parks and protected areas are tragedies for both people and bison. Bison aren’t out to get tourists, but with visitation in Yellowstone and other parks on the rise, wildlife is feeling more pressure than ever. Approximately 4.86 million people visited Yellowstone in 2021, its busiest year to date. American travel has exploded recently, as families cooped up during the pandemic embrace their summer vacations. But that (understandable) wanderlust comes with a cost. More broadly, more than 55% of Earth’s land is shared by people and wildlife. As our footprint extends even farther into wild spaces, encounters between people and wildlife increase, often leading to instances of human-wildlife conflict.

The broader problem may be that many of us no longer know how to relate to nature, because we see ourselves as being outside of it. People are so used to experiencing wildlife through the lens of social media or a wildlife series that we’ve come to see ourselves solely as spectators rather than participants when we enter actual wild places. However, let me be clear: When we visit parks with free-roaming wild animals, we have entered a wild area. And we have no special rights or protections, other than our own common sense.

When you choose to not respect a bison, bear or moose’s space to get that selfie for social media, it is not only disrespectful — it’s dangerous. Humans may have evolved to think themselves apex predators, but they are in fact quite vulnerable.

For those who may still be traveling to parks this year, here’s a quick bison "rule of thumb": If you outstretch your arm and hold up your thumb, you should be able to cover the entire silhouette of any bison in the vicinity. If not, you are too close. This rule should keep visitors approximately 100 yards from a bison, a distance that the animal can cover in just under 6 seconds at 35 miles per hour — if it chooses to. This doesn’t offer much time for you to react, let alone coordinate your family’s reaction — as evidenced by recent events when a frightened child ran away from her parents in response to a charging bison. However, at this distance, the bison will most likely ignore you, preferring to attack a tasty patch of prairie grass instead.

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It is also important to note that a boardwalk or road will not prevent a bison from approaching or feeling anxious or threatened by visitors who are too close. One notable exception to the rule of thumb, though you still need to respect a bison’s space, is traveling inside a closed vehicle (motorcycles don’t count). However, I have even seen bison unintentionally damage cars that were too close, sometimes using a side mirror to scratch a hard-to-reach itch.

These recent incidents of gorings are serious reminders that Americans, and everyone, must give more thought to how we interact with wildlife. The fact that bison still exist is a miracle after they were nearly wiped out as part of deliberate efforts to subjugate Indigenous people. Today Yellowstone National Park, a spectacle that every American should see and experience, is home to more wild bison than any other place in the world. Watching these marvels of nature can be one of the most rewarding moments of someone’s life. But only at a safe distance.