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What’s with all the bison attacks lately?

The recent gorings at Yellowstone weren’t shocking to experts

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

It has been a tumultuous summer for Yellowstone National Park. Following catastrophic rain and flooding at the beginning of peak visitor season last month, the park was closed as officials assessed and repaired damaged roads and bridges. As it reopens in phases, tourists are returning — and getting into trouble with wildlife.

This year, three people in a short period of time were attacked after getting too close to bison.

First was a 25-year-old visitor from Ohio, who was gored and tossed 10 feet into the air by a bison after getting within 10 feet of the animal on May 30. The next incident took place on June 28 — a week after Yellowstone reopened some portions to the public — when a 34-year-old tourist from Colorado was charged and gored near Giant Geyser. A day later, a 71-year-old visitor from Pennsylvania was gored by a bull bison near Storm Point at Yellowstone Lake when she inadvertently approached the animal.

While the incidents may have been shocking to the public, they weren’t to experts.

How travelers can stay safe during encounters with wild animals

“I think that three in a row, that’s just a coincidence, but we see it every year,” says Jared Beaver, a wildlife management specialist and assistant professor in Montana State University’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences. “These days, more and more people are visiting the park, and bison numbers are at an all-time high."

Bison injure more people in Yellowstone than any other wildlife, according to a 2019 report from Utah State University. The unpredictable animals can be dangerous when approached, and they are capable of running three times faster than humans.

“If someone gets too close, the bison may decide to clearly set some boundaries,” says Scott Cundy, co-founder of Wildland Trekking.

Cundy says dangerous wildlife encounters — even ones resulting in injury or fatality — are a predictable occurrence in Yellowstone. Between 1978 and 1992, 56 people were injured and two people died from bison attacks at the park. From 2000 to 2015, there were 25 reported injuries.

It doesn’t help that visitors are approaching the wild animals. Half of attacks occur when a tourist attempts to take a photo with a bison.

“They look so calm and so tame,” Beaver says. “You get people that aren’t quite familiar with the rules and that these animals are still very wild, dangerous animals.”

While flooding impacted park infrastructure, Beaver and Cundy don’t believe it had anything to do with the recent gorings. With large parts of the park closed, “the bison theoretically should have more space to graze and roam right now without the probability of running into people,” Cundy says. “Also, the wet spring has created an abundant amount of grass for the bison to consume.”

Wildlife attacks can be easily avoided with some basic precautions, Cundy says, like staying at least 100 feet from animals, hiking in groups, making noise and carrying bear spray.

A local’s guide to exploring Montana, beyond Glacier and Yellowstone

Park officials say it’s best to stick to trails. Whenever a wild animal is near, give it space or turn around and go the other way, they say. People should stay more than 25 yards away from any large animals (such as bison, moose, coyotes, elk, bighorn sheep), and at least 100 yards from bears and wolves.

“We move to maintain that distance and we ensure all guests know why that’s important for the wildlife’s well-being,” Cimarron Anderson, a Yellowstone-based supervisor of field experiences for REI, said in an email. “It is their home, we are the visitor.”

It’s not only risky to come into contact with wildlife, but also illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb them. In the summer of 2018, a Yellowstone tourist from Oregon was arrested and later sentenced to 130 days in jail for drunken behavior and harassing a bison.

“It’s critical that people remember our national parks are not zoos or amusement parks,” Cundy says. “They are real, wild ecosystems with animals that may look docile but can be extremely dangerous.”