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Remembering Wildlife Is Wild

Death of Yellowstone bison calf draws attention to perils of non-expert interference with wildlife

The public was outraged last week after learning that two visitors to Yellowstone National Park had placed a bison calf in their car and delivered it to rangers, saying it seemed to be without the protection of its herd. Rangers spent two days trying to return the calf to the herd, which rejected it. Park officials said it appeared to have imprinted on people and cars, as it kept approaching visitors and vehicles along the roadway. Believing it would not survive in the wild, they euthanized it.

photo of yellowstone bison and calvesPhoto by Yellowstone National ParkYellowstone park officials euthanized a bison calf after visitors placed the calf in their car, believing it needed help.

Was the calf imprinting on people because of its car ride? Or had that process already begun for the calf living one of America’s most visited national parks? The answer is unclear, but the incident remains a high-profile example of a common problem: People loving nature too much to leave it alone.

Sometimes the toll for human interference is paid by the animal lovers, sometimes by the animals, and sometimes by both. Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist who spent long periods of time with Alaskan grizzly bears and claimed to have a relationship of mutual respect and understanding with them, was killed in 2003 by at least one grizzly. A large male bear found protecting the campsite afterward was shot and killed.

Six years later, a Colorado woman who fed black bears through a fence, saying she considered them her pets, was killed by one of them. It swiped at her through the fence, and then dragged her under it.

Jeff Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service, said his agency kills a handful of bears every year because, despite park rules and warnings, people have fed them often enough that the bears have come to expect it, making them a danger to visitors.

Recently, the selfie culture has also encouraged tourists to place themselves in unsafe proximity to wild animals.

“In a recent viral video, a visitor approached within an arm's length of an adult bison in the Old Faithful area,” the National Park Service said in a press release last week. “Another video featured visitors posing for pictures with bison at extremely unsafe and illegal distances. Last year, five visitors were seriously injured when they approached bison too closely. Bison injure more visitors to Yellowstone than any other animal.”

These are extreme cases; in truth, it’s a rare person who hasn’t at some point interfered with wildlife, usually with good intentions. How many of us have never tried to save a baby bird found on the ground, despite evidence that nature had probably had a hand in it being there? Or fed white bread to ducks even though it’s not good for them?

Our interference has a long history, Olson said. The Park Service itself used to set up bleachers in the parks, including in Yellowstone, then dump trash at a safe distance so that people could watch the bears rummaging through it for something to eat. More than a century ago, California offered a $10 bounty for each killed grizzly; people shot California condors simply because vultures seemed disgusting and opportunistic. After almost disappearing altogether, condor numbers have begun to recover because of human intervention. To this day, they’re monitored for lead and offered lead-free carcasses to eat.

As was the case with the condors, wildlife officials often intervene to save imperiled species. (Read the Journal’s feature on the culling of one protected species to help another protected species here.) So it might be understandable, in an era of environmental concern, that people with incomplete expertise sometimes see wildlife as theirs to save, viewing themselves as potential heroes in the environmental effort. And to some extent, people have always had a tendency to anthropomorphize — to see animals as extensions of ourselves, with the same motives and sensibilities. Because we go to extreme lengths to save human lives, it seems natural to do the same for wild animals, even though that might not be best for the ecosystems in which they live.

Heroic efforts to save wildlife don’t always involve the so-called charismatic megafauna — the bears, bison, and other iconic large species. Last October, a group of scientists issued a letter of concern about monarch-butterfly enthusiasts, who each rear and release hundreds or thousands of butterflies every year in an attempt to help save the embattled species.

“Mass production of monarchs makes it easy to transmit disease,” said the letter, signed by such monarch-butterfly experts as Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota. “There is also concern that monarchs reared in captivity might be less fit than those that grow outside in a natural environment. A recent study found that reared monarchs were significantly smaller and less likely to be recovered in the Mexican overwintering grounds than their wild counterparts. Smaller monarchs live shorter lives as adults and smaller females lay fewer eggs.”

Our interference with nature isn’t always intentional and often is fraught with contradiction; people build homes on the interface with wilderness to enjoy being near nature, put out water for their dogs, and then call for eliminating the coyotes that snatch their pets from their back yards. Residents of Laguna Beach lobbied through the decades for a greenbelt of wilderness to surround the town, but last year, in response to complaints about aggressive coyotes in a couple of neighborhoods, the city embarked on a program that trapped and killed six of the canids.

In national parks and other nature-tourism settings, Olson said, visitors often have more enthusiasm about a wild environment than knowledge about it. “People don’t know their own limits,” he said. And without the requisite knowledge, as was the case with the Yellowstone bison calf, even the best-intentioned visitors may end up doing much more harm to wildlife than good.

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