More tourists, more animals leading to more problems in Yellowstone

Bison walking along the road in Yellowstone National Park (Photo: Mike Fessler/KUTV)

(KUTV) Every year millions flock to Yellowstone National Park, drawn in by the stunning scenery, powerful geysers, and wild animals.

But lately, there have been rumblings of trouble, specifically with the bison and the bears. So what's going on? 2News visited the park to find out.

Bison Are Dangerous

Almost every tourist is guaranteed to see bison in Yellowstone. Once near extinction in the early 1900s, the herd has made an incredible comeback, with a population more than 5,000 animals, according to park officials. But new problems are emerging as park visits continue to break annual records.

"The bottom line is people are getting too close," said Yellowstone public affairs officer Amy Bartlett.

Just weeks ago, a tourist was caught on camera petting a bison at the Old Faithful area. And Monday, the National Park Service announced the death of a baby bison who had been put in the back of an SUV by some tourists who were concerned the bison was cold. Rangers were forced to euthanize the animal after efforts to reunite the calf with its herd were unsuccessful.

But the problems don't stop there. People are getting hurt by these animals that are deceptively dangerous.

"They're like cows with really big swords on their heads," said Bartlett.

In 2015, Yellowstone officials reported five visitors were gored by bison. Four of those incidents were a result of tourists getting too close to take a photo of the bison. One was trying to get a selfie. This number is greater than all gorings reported in 2010 to 2014 combined.

Part of the problem is a growing trend of using cell phones and iPads to capture photos, officials said, which don't offer the same zoom quality as traditional cameras.

"We like to say give them room, use your zoom," said Bartlett. In general, park officials recommend staying at least 25 yards away from bison.

Grizzly Bear Population Recovers, Mortality Doubles

Though harder to find in the park, grizzly bears are still prevalent.

"This is a tremendous success story," said Frank van Manen, team lead for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. Based in Bozeman, Montana, he leads researchers into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem each year to trap and study grizzlies. The population has roared back, he says, from about 100 bears in the 1970s to more than 700 in the ecosystem today.

But 2015 proved a tough year for the grizzly population. Sixty-one bears -- about eight percent of the current population -- were killed. This was more than double the amount from 2014, which saw only 28 grizzlies killed. The main cause of death was human interaction. Some were hit by cars while others were shot in interactions with hunters.

One of the deaths was bear 211, known as Scarface to many regular Yellowstone visitors. He received his name because of the scar on his face from a fight years ago with another bear.

"He lived for a good 25 years and everybody awaited his arrival every spring to see if he made it," said Jennifer Carpenter, acting chief for the Yellowstone Center for Resources. It was confirmed in April that Scarface had been shot by a hunter outside of the park. An investigation of the death is currently pending by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A rare occurrence in the park is the death of humans by grizzlies. One hiker was killed in Yellowstone last year when he encountered a mother grizzly with two cubs on a trail. The grizzly was later euthanized and the cubs were sent to zoos. It is this potential interaction between bears and often enthusiastic humans that keeps the National Park Service (NPS) vigilant in managing bear jams throughout Yellowstone.

"Sometimes they throw caution to the wind and they want to get that picture," said Carpenter. "They want to see that sow grizzly, that mama grizzly with her three cubs."

Another factor in grizzly mortality in 2015 was the decline of the bears' food supply. The cutthroat trout has declined in population due to interference from non-native fish infestation. The whitebark pine, of which grizzlies eat its seeds, has been plagued with disease and beetle infestation. The NPS estimates around 50 percent of this population in the park has been decimated. This has led to grizzlies venturing further out and finding food in the wrong places, like trash cans and homes.

Charles Price knows about that. He's a rancher in Daniel, Wyoming -- which is part of the Yellowstone ecosystem -- and a commissioner for the Wyoming Fish and Game Commission. Every summer, he drives his cattle about 30 miles north of his ranch to graze.

But grizzlies have expanded to that area, too. Last year, his cattle association lost over 80 head of cattle to confirmed grizzly attacks. That number has grown every year since 2010. He and other ranchers have gone through the bureaucratic process to report the kill, trap the bear to confirm it's the killer, and have the grizzly destroyed. But due to the grizzly bear being on the endangered species list, the association is only allowed to have 11 bears destroyed every three years. Price said there's little he can do if he spotted a bear killing one of his animals.

"We can't even touch 'em," he said. "We are not even supposed to harass them."

Delisting the Grizzly Bear

Price is in favor of a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the grizzly bear from the endangered species list in the Yellowstone ecosystem. It's a controversial topic. Thousands have voiced their opinions during the government's open comment period, with many decrying the proposal, indicating the grizzly population will take a drastic hit if the bears become a trophy possibility for hunters.

But van Manen, the bear researcher, says the grizzly population has naturally met its limit in the ecosystem.

"There can only be so many grizzly bears in a particular ecosystem," he said.

The NPS has voiced its support for delisting the bear.

"We think the population has recovered," said Carpenter. "We just want to make sure the delisting process is done carefully."

A decision on delisting is expected to be announced within the next year.

Caution for Park Visitors

Despite the recent uptick in deaths, park biologists feel the grizzly population will continue to thrive, as will the bison. But the lesson to be learned by tourists is to enjoy a wildlife experience, but stay a safe distance away.

"They're wild animals and they are dangerous," said Carpenter. The recommended safe viewing distance for park predators, including grizzlies, black bears, and wolves, is 100 yards.

See the complete list of 2015 Known and Probable Grizzly Bear Mortalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem here.

Editor's Note: Yellowstone National Park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett passed away prior to the airing of this report.

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