A vicious bison attack on Wednesday at Yellowstone National Park triggered concerns over visitor safety when a 68-year-old woman was gored while hiking, said officials. The latest incident brings the total number of bison attacks this year to four. With the peak holiday weekend coming up, and an average of around 700,000 to 900,000 visitors flocking to the park each July, more than any other month of the year, according to National Park Service statistics, those concerns have been more amplified than usual.
"Visitors are reminded that they are responsible for their safety, which includes viewing wildlife from safe distances of at least 25 yards," said park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett in a statement on Thursday. "... Remember that while many of the bison and elk in the park may appear tame, they are wild animals and should never be approached."
On Wednesday, said Bartlett, the 68-year-old Georgia woman was hiking along the popular Storm Point Trail, which crosses a span of forest, flat grasslands, and pebbled beaches, when she encountered a large bison standing near the path. Witnesses said that as she passed by the bison, it charged and gored her. One of the witnesses flagged down a nearby ranger who was leading a hike and the woman was taken to the nearby Lake Clinic, where she was subsequently airlifted to a larger hospital to be treated for serious injuries. On Saturday, Bartlett told Bustle that the woman was still in serious condition as of late Thursday.
The attack came on the heels of another recent incident on June 23. According to officials, a 19-year-old Georgia woman and concession employee was returning to her car after night-swimming with her three friends at Firehole River when she was charged at and tossed in the air by a bison that had been lying on the ground nearby. After being helped back to the vehicle and driven back to the Canyon Village lodge, the girl went to bed, but awoke later complaining that she felt ill. She was transported by ground ambulance and was released that same day with minor injuries, reported park authorities.
In both instances, said Bartlett on Thursday, the women had trespassed on the bison's territory (in the latter incident, unknowingly), which caused the animals charge in self-defense. With a large crowd likely to descend on the park over the Fourth of July weekend, that number could potentially go up if visitors aren't careful.
"Bison can sprint three times faster than humans can run and are unpredictable and dangerous," explained Bartlett. Four separate attacks in less than two months, she told CNN, was highly unusual for the animals. "We usually have one to two incidents per year," she said.
Bison are well known to charge large vehicles during traffic jams in the park (one visitor even captured the moment a three-strong herd of bison decided to ram into his car head-on), but even with their aggressive notoriety, some still disregard park rules — a frustrating situation for park rangers who are later called on to respond to violent encounters.
In August 2012, video footage of a group of children attempting to encroach on a young bison's territory while crossing a path went viral. In the video, the adults present at the time laughed as one young boy was subsequently charged and chased around the trees. With bison weighing an average of around a ton and ranking in at number one on the list of park wildlife most likely to attack humans (elk, surprisingly, came in at number four on the list), it was a lucky coincidence that the boy wasn't injured — or worse.
With a multitude of festivities scheduled for Independence Day weekend, it's important to remember to respect the wildlife of any national park, coached Bartlett and fellow spokeswoman Traci Weaver on Wednesday.
"Whether along the road or along a hiking trail, visitors are required to view wildlife from a safe distance of at least 25 yards for most large animals and at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves," wrote the NPS spokeswomen. "This [will] ensure the safety of both people and animals."
As for those travel plans? Bartlett explained to Bustle that there was no real need to avoid any specific regions of the park, or change itineraries. But no matter where you are, she suggested, visitors should avoid getting too comfortable around the wildlife.
"Bison roam freely throughout the park, so there are no specific areas to avoid," she said. "However, people do need to be willing to alter their plans to avoid bison lying on or near trails or boardwalks ... I think when people are on trails or boardwalks, it gives them a false sense of security that they are safe from the bison, [even if it means] turning around and going back the way they came, especially in thermal areas where people cannot walk off trail." She added that if visitors come across areas with several bison, they should consider an alternate route.
"Stopping by a visitor center to ask about safe hiking locations is a good idea," Bartlett told Bustle. "Situation awareness is key — [i.e.] paying close attention to your surroundings and keeping a close eye for any aggressive movements by wildlife."
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