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The 2,000-pound consequence

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Bison jam near Madison Junction. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK / NPS

The importance of giving bison their space in Yellowstone


What is the worst that could happen when you walk up to a sleeping bison? “The bison is sleeping,” you may think. “As long as I am quiet, I’ll be fine and end up with an awesome photo from my trip, right? What’s the worst that could happen?”

This past year in Yellowstone National Park there were many incidents in which people got too close the wildlife and nothing bad happened to them. Most incidents where tourists get too close are not reported because there is often no injury or “newsworthy incident.” Some of you may be asking, “Why is this a problem if no one got hurt?”

I address this by stating—it’s the principle of the matter.

Just because you don’t get hurt one time, doesn’t mean no one will ever get hurt because you didn’t. There have been some very critical attacks including one in which a lady was attacked by a bison because she got too close so she could take a picture of the animal.

During Yellowstone’s 2023-24 season, the rate of bison attacks have been numerous. Even with this knowledge, tourists this season have gone within 25 yards, the required distance visitors must stay from bison (100 yards for bears and wolves). This occurs sometimes even with their children, just so they can capture the “perfect image” from their family vacation. Those images won’t be worth it if you or the members in your family are attacked because you had to get your perfect shot. One such incident in 2019 included a group that got too close to a bison and when the bison charged, the two adults ran away as the girl was thrown into the air by the bison. 

Was getting the close-up picture worth it when a little girl was attacked in order for that photo to be obtained? I don’t think so. 

As a teenager who has lived in Montana all my life, and been to Yellowstone multiple times, I am used to witnessing at least one tourist—or “touron” as they are often referred to on social media—doing something against the rules, such as getting within 25 yards of a bison. They often make it out unarmed with no consequences. 

A consequence is defined as, “A thing or circumstance which follows as an effect or result from something preceding.” Using this definition, we can see that a consequence is not necessarily a bad thing, which is often how people think of the word—with negative connotations.

If we use this definition against our example of tourists in Yellowstone making bad decisions, we can say that the consequences of those getting too close to bison can be injury, monetary fines or even a guilty conscience, knowing that they broke the rules.

For the visitors following the rules, the consequences of that one person’s action could be harm to the bystander, as with the little girl left behind by the adults, trauma if they witnessed an attack, or tighter restrictions within the park, diminishing the experience for all visitors.

Regardless, I don’t see many positive consequences to breaking the rules in Yellowstone because the leading action involved breaking a rule. While many claim some rules are meant to be broken, not the ones that protect you from getting attacked by a 2,000-pound, seven-foot-long animal. Don’t we owe it to each other to take responsibility and accept the consequences of our actions? 

In theory, yes. But, it is easy for me to sit here and write this in the safety of my room rather than being in Yellowstone National Park at the risk of wildlife. Sometimes you just want to live in the moment, and while the sentiment is okay, the reality is not when it involves the wellbeing of others and real consequences in a wild place like Yellowstone. 

Moral of the story is, consequences are always present, no matter the situation—good or bad. Accept the consequences for your actions, and never under any circumstances—no matter how fantastic the picture would be—get closer than 25 yards to a bison. It’s just not smart.

Eva Mitchell is a skier and artist in Big Sky, Montana, currently attending the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington D.C.

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