How close can I get to wild animals in Yellowstone?

Bison herd with two calves. Photo by Jerry Gates

Yellowstone National Park is a park, per se, but not the normal, middle of the city, lots of squirrels and rabbits, throw around a Frisbee, kind of park. It’s far bigger (3,468 square miles in fact) and far, far wilder. This landscape of boiling ponds and rugged hills is beautiful, but it’s also dangerous—and unpredictable. Among the most unpredictable features, along with those geysers that randomly spout once every 75 years, are the animals.

Can I pet the animals?

It might seem obvious that grizzly bears, wolves and coyotes—you know, animals with big teeth—are capable of inflicting bodily harm, but those seemingly docile mammals like moose, elk and bison have just as fierce a temper. Stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards away from other large mammals like bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes.

Bison might look heavy and slow, but they’re surprisingly fast: three times faster than humans can run. Each year Yellowstone visitors are gored and some have even been killed by these mighty animals. Stay safe, and stay in your car when viewing them. Yep, that means petting them is off limits, no matter how impressive that picture might look on Facebook.

Don’t approach animals. If it changes its behavior because of your presence, you’re too close. Sure they may seem calm, tame even, but their disposition is toddler-like in that it can change in a second. Always obey instructions given by park staff on the scene.

Can I feed the animals?

With bears in the area, it’s mandatory that park visitors keep all food and garbage stored in a bear-proof manner. Even the scent of an empty cooler can attract wild animals. At one time, Yellowstone actually fed bears garbage to put on “Bear Shows,” and tourists routinely attracted bears with food. In the last several decades the park has made significant progress on returning animals to wild behavior and has rejected zoo-like practices.

What if a critter begs for food?

Coyotes and ravens pick up scavenging practices, so don’t feed them. It’s illegal to do so anyway. Coyotes quickly learn bad habits like roadside begging, which can 1. lead to aggressive behavior toward humans, and 2. make it more likely for them to be hit and killed by a vehicle. Ravens have learned to unzip and unsnap packs, so keep these crafty birds away from your food supply.

Feeding wildlife is actually a form of animal cruelty. Being fed human food causes the wrong type of bacteria to become dominant in their stomachs. Soon these animals are no longer able to digest their natural foods.

Fed animals also pose a threat to humans. Feeding rodents such as marmots and prairie dogs is especially dangerous because they can transmit diseases deadly to humans, such as Bubonic Plague and Hantavirus.

Can I call out to get an animal’s attention?

Calling to attract wildlife is illegal. We know you want that great photo of a bison looking straight at the camera, but if the bison has its back to you, you’re going to have to be content with a back shot. Remember that Yellowstone is not a zoo; it’s more of a preserve where wild animals get to be wild without interruption from humans. So please refrain from bugling to elk, howling to wolves, and whistling to eagles. Let them go about their wild life.

Not convinced to stay a safe distance?

Watch these videos of visitors that got too close.


NPS Resource: http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/yoursafety.htm

Related Stories: “Unnatural” Deaths in Yellowstone National Park – and How to Avoid ThemGeothermal Attractions can be Dangerous | Two Yellowstone Visitors Gored by Bison