Gryphon Park

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Yellowstone National Park

Paradise Misplaced?

Black Sand Basin Yellowstone is important for many reasons. It is the crown jewel of America's National Park system. It is one of the few large wilderness ecosystems left in North America. It is incredibly beautiful. It is also important for being the birthplace of the concept of the National Park. The concept of the National Park is, in my opinion, one of America's greatest contributions to the world.

Because Yellowstone is important in so many ways, I was troubled by careless disregard for its preservation that I saw in its visitors. I saw far too many instances of visitors harassing animals and putting thermal features at risk. It is hard for me to understand how in the middle of such beauty, my fellow citizens can be reckless with this national treasure.

West Thumb On our previous three trips, we had gone in May when the park is very empty. May is really a fantastic month to visit Yellowstone. The park is virtually empty, lodging in the surrounding towns is a bargain, there's still some snow on the mountain peaks which adds to the scenery and the baby buffalo are very cute. The biggest downside to visiting the park in May is that you take a gamble on weather -- heavy snow is possible. This trip we went in September. September's big upsides are the rich palette of autumn colors and the sounds of the elk bulls bugling echoing through the hills. We were surprised to find the park much more crowded in September than May.

Perhaps May attracts a different crowd or maybe it's just that there are fewer people. For what ever reason, I've seen very little bad behavior in May. Unfortunately, this time I saw a lot of both bad and stupid behavior. The fall is rutting season for the elk. The elkĀ  bulls are competing to add female elk to their harems. Not surprisingly, they are very aggressive under those circumstances. I saw countless instances of people, often with their small children in tow, walking not more than five feet from elk bulls. Sometimes there would be a ranger to yell at them that their safety was at risk, though frequently the offender would ignore the ranger or simply wait till the ranger had moved on and then go back to their bad behavior.

BlackBear When visitors to the park chronically are getting too close to the animals, we risk losing the animals' wildness. It is also stressful for the animal to interact with people in close proximity. Yellowstone is a demanding place. The winter is long and cold. Energy that the animals expend by being stressed by people makes them less likely to survive the harsh winter. A particularly egregious incident of bullyragging the wild animals that we saw during this trip to Yellowstone involved someone using their vehicle to try to force a bear to run up a tree. After awhile, it becomes hard to separate the actions from the merely ignorant from the truly malicious.

It turns out that stupidity is nothing new in Yellowstone. The superbly researched book, Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park written by Lee H. Whittlesey chronicles how carelessness and recklessness have cost many visitors their lives.

Elk Cows Grazing After awhile the lines between those putting themselves at risk really do begin to blur. Probably because most activities that are dangerous for the park are dangerous for the visitor as well. It's not a good idea to antagonize an elk. It's bad for the elk. If the elk charges someone who bothers it, that person will likely be seriously injured if not killed. The problem for Yellowstone is that these bad actors think the rules of the park are only for their benefit and they have a right to endanger themselves if they want to. Since I have a hard time fathoming why these bad actors do not realize that their actions are harmful to the park, I sometimes wonder if they simply cannot understand the difference between wilderness and Disneyland.

Yellowstone is an irreplacable treasure. If we care for it properly, people will still be enjoying it a thousand years from now. I wish all its visitors would enjoy it respectfully. I think everyone should visit Yellowstone and experience its splendor; just please obey the park rules.

Much more of a sermon than a travelogue. I'll get off my soapbox now.

Mike Chowla - April 24,2003