BILLINGS – Last week in Yellowstone National Park a mother black bear and two cubs ambled down a greening hillside along the road to Tower Falls.
Instantly a line of cars and photographers swooped in creating what's known in Yellowstone as a bear jam. Before a ranger could arrive to direct traffic and keep people back, I snapped these photos with a long lens of a woman getting way too close for comfort to the mama bear and cubs. The woman finally stepped back – either after getting her shot or because she was urged to move by a few people in the gathering crowd.
No animal is more dangerous than a mother who feels its offspring may be in danger. The risk the woman took is not only illegal in Yellowstone – tourists are required to stay 100 yards from bears and wolves – but also just plain ignorant.
Common sense seems to flee people's minds incredibly quickly when they see an animal, bird or even a line of cars pulled to the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park.
Already this spring Yellowstone has been the site of several examples of people behaving badly. One tourist picked up a bison calf and gave it a ride in their car to the ranger station. A woman was filmed trying to pet a bison. One woman was struck by a vehicle and died after trying to cross a road to take photos of a bald eagle. A Canadian film crew illegally walked onto a hot springs feature, filming the entire trip. And the peak park visitor season hasn't even arrived yet.
If last week's bear jam is any indication, no matter how much information park managers publish or broadcast about the illegality of such incidents, folks either aren't getting the message or just don't care about the rules meant to ensure their safety, as well as to protect wildlife and the park workers called to the scene of such incidents.
Last week when the woman photographer boldly advanced across the narrow road, I thought for a second that I would witness a bear attack. Luckily the mama bear showed more sense than the woman and moved away from the crowd and up the hill, along with its cubs.
Yet the incident makes many regular park visitors and staff wonder: What is going to happen next? Or maybe less politely: How stupid can tourists be? No wonder some park workers refer to visitors as "tourons," a combination of the words tourist and moron. Last summer it was bison gorings and people falling from cliffs that made headlines. This year is anyone's guess.
With a busy tourism season forecast as the Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday, chances are it won't be too long before another Yellowstone visitor behaves badly. Let's hope it's not a fatal mistake.