What can we learn from the recent tourist blunders in Yellowstone?

At a time when the National Park Service would like to be celebrating its 100th anniversary—and the announcement that American bison have been recognized as the country’s national mammal—Yellowstone National Park is having a rough go.

First came news this past weekend that two people who spotted a “lonely” baby bison and thought it was cold brought it to a ranger station to “save it,” and effectively signed its death sentence since a mama bison won’t go near her calves once they smell like humans. In the end, the bison was euthanized, and the reckless humans walked away with (only) a $110 ticket.

Then, more recently, was news that the High On Life SundayFundayz crew (a group of Canadian bros who travel and post their adventures on YouTube and other social media) wandered out into the Grand Prismatic Spring to snap Instagram pix.

On the surface, both episodes were “just” tourist stupidity—sad examples of people behaving badly away from home. This is nothing new. In 2014, the U.S. Forest Service chided visitors for taking selfies with bears near Lake Tahoe. Last year, a herd of elk gored someone in Colorado, and another bison in Yellowstone attacked a tourist trying to take a selfie with it. 

Dig a little deeper, however, and these debacles speak to a larger problem: Travelers are often woefully undereducated about the places they travel to, despite the glut of information that is available.

Yellowstone has plenty of signs warning people not to touch the wildlife, and signs at the Grand Prismatic Spring tell visitors to stay on the boardwalks. (The High On Life guys actually filmed the signs before they disregarded them.) And in this day and age, there are plenty of other ways of getting information. In the spring incident, a quick Google search could have informed the High On Life crew about the sensitive nature of geothermal ecosystems. In the bison case, the same would have led to safety warnings that instruct visitors to stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards from all other wildlife. Very basic reading would also have taught the offenders that bison often leave their babies alone to teach the young how to fend for themselves—and that it’s hard for a furry 400-pound animal to get “cold” when it’s not even freezing outside.

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Reaction to both incidents has been swift. Both offending parties have been destroyed on social media. High On Life faces other problems: Its sponsors, such as Red Bull and Budweiser, have reportedly contemplated pulling their sponsorships, and on Thursday the feds filed a criminal complaint against three of the young men.

Still, in both cases, the damage has been done. The prescription for avoiding similar mistakes in the future: Think. Read. Plan ahead. Pay attention. Education is a huge part of travel, but it doesn’t have to be about learning from tragic mistakes.

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