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A grizzly in Yellowstone National Park was labeled “rampaging.” It turned out that a photographer had been baiting it with food.

There are many Native American stories regarding the stunning red, orange and white hoodoos in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park. The Paiute Indians call the park Unka-timpe-wa-wince-pockich—which means “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped canyon.” According to one of their myths, a group of people once moved into the area and made Coyote angry at their bad behavior. Coyote put a curse on the people, turning them to stone. The canyon’s hoodoos are these Legend People.

Given recent news headlines, however, it seems that the bad people in our national parks are not just relics of tales from the ancient past. And the worst part of it may be that instead of people paying the price for their bad behavior, wildlife is taking the rap.

Yellowstone buffalo often take the blame for what happens when people get too close. ©John T. Andrews

Breaking bad

In July 2010, newspaper articles and TV broadcasts were overrun with stories about a 49-year-old woman and a companion who were “attacked” by a buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The woman spotted the buffalo in a parking lot and began to walk toward it. The animal responded by charging her. She managed to record the event on her cell phone camera, and that footage accompanied her as she made the rounds of morning TV talk shows, her bruises prominently displayed in high def.

After the video was posted on YouTube, however, viewers started taking a second look. According to several people who wrote in, it appeared that a stick had been thrown at the buffalo before it attacked. Some say there was already something on the buffalo’s head that it was trying to shake off. The footage also shows a man purposely striding toward the buffalo. It’s clear that the animal was being stressed by what could be construed as aggressive human actions toward it, and a natural reaction followed.

Yellowstone National Park regulations, which are handed out upon entering the park, explicitly state that visitors must stay more than 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards away from other wildlife. It’s written that “It is illegal to willfully remain near or approach wildlife, including birds, within ANY distance that disturbs or displaces the animal.” In her interviews, the woman admitted that she had approached the buffalo to within 10 yards.

A month later, in August, a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park’s Soda Butte Campground killed a Michigan man. Just a week after the “rampaging” grizzly mauled the man to death and injured two other campers near the park, officials were called to investigate allegations that a photographer had been baiting wildlife with food just two weeks earlier. The baiting would explain why the bear kept coming back to the campground, seven miles outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, even after the killing.

Unfortunately, I’m now beginning to see this tendency to blame animals for our bad behavior diffuse out beyond national park boundaries—even into the skies overhead. As recently as last October, a crocodile was blamed for an airplane crash in the Congo. A passenger had hidden it in a duffel bag he’d carried on board, with the intent of selling the reptile upon arrival. The crocodile escaped as the plane was landing. The lone survivor of the crash said the passengers hurried toward the cockpit in a panic, making the plane unstable and thus uncontrollable by the pilot. An investigation into the tragedy revealed that the plane did suffer a balance problem, but not because of the crocodile.

Unfortunately, Coyote no longer seems able to control the bad behavior in our national parks. ©John T. Andrews

Blaming wildlife

The female grizzly that killed the Michigan man was euthanized, and her three cubs were moved to a zoo in Billings, Montana. There is no word about what happened to the offending buffalo—probably only because after the incident, it was impossible to distinguish it from the other buffalo in the park.

In the last 100 years, grizzlies have killed nine people in Glacier National Park and six in Yellowstone, and those parks average one grizzly attack that creates injuries per year. With approximately 1,300 grizzlies living in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, however, the human mortality numbers are lower than might be expected. It’s clear that most animals don’t go out of their way to harass us.

Tom Smith, a bear biologist and an assistant professor at Brigham Young University who once worked at Katmai National Park, recently reported that tourists there would often tell him a grizzly had charged them. But after reviewing video footage they provided as evidence, he said he never saw a grizzly charging—just bears walking about and minding their own business. “The point is,” he told Mead Gruver, an Associated Press writer, “people can’t read these animals at all.”

It could be that despite what recent news stories would have you believe about too many “rampaging” animals in our national parks and elsewhere that the real story is that humans are increasingly displaying bad behavior and are stressing wildlife. Unfortunately, it is the animals that often pay the ultimate price for our mistakes.

Do you think the way people behave when they are near wildlife is getting more disrespectful? Or are we just hearing more about it in the news?

As for the airplane crocodile, it survived the crash but was later killed with a machete by rescue workers sifting through the wreckage.

Unfortunately for us, it seems Coyote no longer turns people into stone.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy