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Hawaii man fined for disturbing baby bison that Yellowstone euthanized

Yellowstone staff killed the bison calf after it was rejected by its herd and began following cars

A bison calf in springtime at the Fountain Flats in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)
6 min

This story has been updated

A man from Hawaii must pay more than $1,000 in fines and fees after admitting he interfered with a baby bison at Yellowstone National Park last month, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office in Wyoming. Yellowstone staff euthanized the calf after it was rejected by its herd following the May 20 incident, park officials said.

Clifford Walters pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentionally disturbing wildlife. His penalty includes a $500 fine and a $500 community service payment to Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner, in addition to a $30 special assessment and $10 processing fee.

On its website, Yellowstone Forever describes its mission as funding projects that “conserve native wildlife, biodiversity and contribute to a healthy and resilient environment for the future.” One of its initiatives is the Bison Conservation and Transfer Program, which resettles Yellowstone bison with Native American tribes.

On May 20, Walters intervened in the animal’s struggle to cross a river in Lamar Valley. Park officials said in a news release the incident led to the animal’s death.

“It was the only option the park had in an unfortunate circumstance,” said Jared Beaver, associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Montana State University at Bozeman. “Human interference during critical times can cause more damage than good. People need to leave the babies alone.”

Because the herd rejected the baby, the animal was left to its own devices. Beaver said the calf could have starved to death or been hit by car. “It was an endangerment to itself and to visitors,” he said.

The calf and its mother were separated when the herd traversed the Lamar River in northern Wyoming, the news release says. Walters, who was dressed in a blue T-shirt, black pants and dark sunglasses, approached the newborn bison, which was struggling on the shoreline. He pushed the animal up the grassy banks and onto the road. Spectators reportedly saw the young bison following cars and people, a dangerous situation for the animal and the humans.

On the hunt for Yellowstone’s bison

Park officials attempted to reunite the calf with the herd but failed on multiple occasions. The bison was euthanized that evening.

“The calf was later killed by park staff because it was abandoned by the herd and causing a hazardous situation by approaching cars and people along the roadway,” the news release said.

In May 2016, a similar incident occurred when visitors who were concerned about the welfare of a newborn bison put the calf in their car and drove it to a Yellowstone park facility. Efforts to reunite the baby with the herd were unsuccessful, and officials had to euthanize the animal.

The park advises visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from such nonpredatory animals as bison and elk and at least 100 yards from bears and wolves.

How travelers can stay safe during encounters with wild animals

In the May 20 case, Beaver said the calf might have survived had Walters not intervened. For example, the mother could have returned to the river to retrieve her offspring. Or the newborn could have garnered enough strength to catch up to its group.

“Bison crossing the river is very common,” he said. “The herd would’ve come back or the calf would’ve figure it out.”

If the baby had been too weak to crest the bank, predators would have fed on the dying or deceased animal. Beaver said about 25 percent of bison born this spring will die.

“Life and death are a part of nature’s natural process. Every day, animals die so that others can live,” he said. “This is especially true in Yellowstone, where you have extreme weather events and large predators on the landscape.”

Yellowstone takes a hands-off approach to managing its wild inhabitants. Park officials rarely intervene, even when an animal is injured or sick. For this reason, they could not have cared for the orphaned bison.

“They’re not taking the animal into captivity,” said John Griffin, senior director of the urban wildlife programs at the Humane Society of the United States. “They’re not a zoo or a sanctuary. Yellowstone is a wild place.”

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Transferring the baby to an off-site rehabilitation or rescue center was not an option, either. State and federal regulations do not allow the transport of bison outside the park, unless the animal is slated to go to a meat-processing or scientific research facility.

Griffin said the first week of a bison’s life is critical to its survival. During this time, the mother cleans the calf, who is scentless and hard to detect by predators. In the hours following its birth, it will take its first steps, hone its coordination skills and “imprint” on its mother, which will help the baby identify its parent in a herd of hundreds or thousands.

Experts do not know why the herd rejected the baby. However, Griffin does not think human scent or handling was the cause. “From experience, human scent has not prevented reuniting other mammal moms with their offspring.” he said, referring to deer, skunk, squirrels and raccoon.

He said the length of time of the separation plus the swirl of human activity could have sabotaged the reunion.

“This guy put himself in harm’s way without understanding anything about bison,” he said.

What’s with all the bison attacks lately?

In addition to jeopardizing the baby bison’s life, Walters also put himself at risk. Last summer, bison attacked three Yellowstone visitors over a short span of time. The burly animals, which weigh 1,000 to 1,800 pounds, depending on gender, harmed 56 people and killed two between 1978 and 1992 and injured 25 travelers between 2000 and 2015.

If you come across a wild animal, regardless of age, keep your distance and never touch or feed it. Many creatures, such as rabbits and deer, will leave their offspring alone as a form of protection. The parent, whose scent could attract a predator, may be close by, watching its young.

If you think an animal is injured or sick, notify a park ranger or wildlife rescue center, depending on your location. The Humane Society has a list of resources, including advice on helping wildlife and a state-by-state list of rehabilitators.