YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Last week, a Michigan man was charged in federal court with walking off-trail in a Yellowstone National Park thermal area. The charging documents claim he endangered himself and others and suffered burns as a result of leaving the trail. While awaiting trial, the man, 49-year-old Jason D. Wicks of Hillman, Michigan is banned from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
While most people follow the rules in the park, you may have noticed that the number of social media posts showing people misbehaving in Yellowstone skyrocketed this summer.
Just click through popular social media threads and you’re nearly overwhelmed with photos and video of people breaking park rules, and doing things that are outright dangerous. Guides, like Larry Bloomfield of West Yellowstone, say it reflects what’s really happening in the park.
He said, “I think in the last few years, it's gotten a lot worse.”
Rick Hoeninghausen lives and works in the park. In his job with Yellowstone Park Lodges, he talks to guides nearly every day.
Hoeninghausen said, “It seems like the behavior has gotten worse as social media gets more popular. And people want to, 'Look what I did. Look what I did.'”
Park Spokesperson Linda Veress told us she thinks the number of posts showing people breaking the rules was worse earlier in the summer but admits there’s no tracking of complaints about such activity. She said, “We don’t have the stats, we don’t keep track. But I can tell you that visitors are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, every day.”
Larry Bloomfield claimed it’s getting worse. He said, “We're seeing people being more brazen. They're getting out and doing more to try and make a statement. You know, I got away with this. I think this was great. See what I did.”
According to the park, getting too close to wildlife is the top offense. The park rules say people should stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards away from all other animals. It’s a rule that Bloomfield said is often ignored.
“There was a big bison there. They all jumped out very fast. The bison charged. They didn't get hurt because they managed to get back in the car, but he did hit the front of the car,” said Bloomfield.
Hoeninghausen said there’s another danger: “And unfortunately, as we know with selfies, you're pretty much turning your back to whatever you want to get the shot of, and you're putting yourself in a more compromised position,” he said.
Hoeninghausen also said he sees people who blow right past warning signs at hot springs.
He said, “Grand Prismatic is a place where it's well-signed, don't go out there. Yet we're getting people walking out there.”
Signs are found at thermal areas all over the park. The postings warn of the dangers of leaving boardwalks or trails in an array of languages with universal warning symbols and even pictures showing the dangers.
The park’s Linda Veress said there’s a common violation, “People wanting to touch the waters in the thermal features. You know, that’s a bad idea.”
It’s dangerous because the water can be extremely hot, even hotter than boiling, and in some cases very acidic. Once you’re off trails or boardwalks the crusty soil can be very thin. People can fall through to scalding water or red hot rocks. So what should you do if you see something like this?
Amber Quiroz, a park visitor from Greenville, South Carolina who frequently visits Yellowstone said, “I will vocally tell them, and physically just in case they don't speak English, to move away from the animals, get back. Sometimes I cuss. It makes me that mad. But I do my best to make sure that people really get the picture.”
Veress was not happy to hear that. She said, “So that's not something we recommend that people do. But you know, if they're in immediate danger. It wouldn't hurt to, you know, tell them that what they're doing is dangerous to their health.”
Instead of confronting people, the park recommends contacting a ranger. But that can be problematic.
Bloomfield said, “We don't have enough park rangers. That's a terrible thing.”
Veress countered, “We do our best. In July, we had almost a million visitors to the park and we don't have that many rangers. So, you know, when we hear about these incidents, we do our best to contact the visitors who are doing things that they shouldn't be doing.”
When it comes to warning park guests about dangerous activities, Rick Hoeninghausen has his own technique.
He said, “I, I tend to be comfortable doing that, but I try (laughs) to be very tactful.”
He said people mostly listen: “People more often than not will be receptive to the guidance if they truly didn't understand what they were doing was wrong.”
Another guide we spoke with, MacNeil Lyons of Yellowstone Insight, recommends large digital displays at park entrances with safety reminders for people to see as they wait to enter the park. On his Facebook page, Lyons has posted guides for proper behavior for viewing roadside grizzly bears, watching wolf crossings, and dealing with bear jams.
With elk mating season almost here, signs like the ones in Mammoth and elsewhere that warn people to give animals some distance are just about to become even more important as excited bull elk pick fights with each other in areas frequented by park visitors.
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