Visitor Misbehavior Abounds as US Parks Agency Turns 100 | NBC4 Washington
National & International News
The day’s top national and international news

Visitor Misbehavior Abounds as US Parks Agency Turns 100

Visitors at Yellowstone have transformed the summer rush into a frenzy, with tourists breaking park rules

    processing...

    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    In this Aug. 3, 2016 photo, tourists take photos of elk outside Yellowstone National Park's Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Elk frequent the grass outside the hotel, where park administrators say visitors routinely violate park rules that require them to stay a minimum 25 yards from the animals.

    Tourist John Gleason crept through the grass, four small children close behind, inching toward a bull elk with antlers like small trees at the edge of a meadow in Yellowstone National Park. 

    "They're going to give me a heart attack," said Gleason's mother-in-law, Barbara Henry, as the group came within about a dozen yards of the massive animal.

    The elk's ears then pricked up, and it eyed the children and Washington state man before leaping up a hillside. Other tourists — likewise ignoring rules to keep 25 yards from wildlife — picked up the pursuit, snapping pictures as they pressed forward and forced the animal into headlong retreat. 

    Record visitor numbers at the nation's first national park have transformed its annual summer rush into a sometimes dangerous frenzy, with selfie-taking tourists routinely breaking park rules and getting too close to Yellowstone's storied elk herds, grizzly bears, wolves and bison. 

    Visitors to Wildlife Preserve Catch Glimpse of Massive Gator

    [NATL] Visitors to Wildlife Preserve Catch Glimpse of Massive Gator
    A massive alligator was recorded on video Sunday at a wildlife preserve in Polk County, Florida. Almost prehistoric in appearance, the gator is known well by people who frequent the preserve, but the social media explosion brought out plenty of new viewers on Monday. "It's awesome," exclaimed Jackson McMillan. That is until he was asked if he wanted to get any closer, to which he replied, "I'm fine." (Published Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017)

    Law enforcement records obtained by The Associated Press suggest such problems are on the rise at the park, offering a stark illustration of the pressures facing some of America's most treasured lands as the National Park Service marks its 100th anniversary. 

    From Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon of Arizona, major parks are grappling with illegal camping, vandalism, theft of resources, wildlife harassment and other visitor misbehavior, according to the records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

    In July alone, law enforcement rangers handled more than 11,000 incidents at the 10 most visited national parks. 

    In Yellowstone, rangers are recording more wildlife violations, more people treading on sensitive thermal areas and more camping in off-limit areas. The rule-breaking puts visitors in harm's way and can damage resources and displace wildlife, officials said. 

    Crowd Sings 'We Shall Overcome' at MLK Memorial

    [NATL-DC] Crowd Sings 'We Shall Overcome' at MLK Memorial
    Thousands of people across the country paid homage Monday to Martin Luther King Jr. At a wreath-laying ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the crowd sang "We Shall Overcome" after walking the wreath to an area in front of the statue. (Published Monday, Jan. 16, 2017)

    Often the incidents go unaddressed, such as when Gleason and the children approached the bull elk with no park personnel around. Gleason said he was "maybe" too close but felt comfortable in the situation as an experienced hunter who's spent lots of time outdoors. 

    These transgressions add to rangers' growing workload that includes traffic violations, searches for missing hikers and pets running off-leash in parks. 

    "It's more like going to a carnival. If you look at the cumulative impacts, the trends are not good," said Susan Clark, a Yale University professor of wildlife ecology who has been conducting research in the Yellowstone area for 48 years. "The basic question is, 'What is the appropriate relationship with humans and nature?' We as a society have not been clear about what that ought to be, and so it's really, really messy and nasty." 

    Recent events at Yellowstone grabbed national headlines: 

    Thieves Steal Oversized Teddy Bears From Flower Shop

    [NATL] Thieves Steal Oversized Teddy Bears From Flower Shop
    Police in Marietta, Oklahoma are looking for two thieves who carried out an unusual heist. The pair stole nine life-sized stuffed animals after smashing into a flower shop. Surveillance video shows a suspect in a black hoodie hammering out windows and stealing several large stuffed animals. (Published Friday, Jan. 13, 2017)

     

    • A Canadian tourist who put a bison calf in his SUV hoping to save it, ending with wildlife workers euthanizing the animal when they could not reunite it with its herd.
    • Three visitors from Asia cited on separate occasions for illegally collecting water from the park's thermal features.
    • A Washington state man killed after leaving a designated boardwalk and falling into a near-boiling hot spring. 

     

    The flouting of park rules stems from disbelief among visitors that they will get hurt, said Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. "I can't tell you how many times I have to talk to people and say, 'Step back. There's a dangerous animal,' and they look at me like I have three heads," he said. 

    Dashcam Video Catches Man Shooting at Deputy

    [NATL] Dashcam Video Catches Man Shooting at Deputy
    Dashcam video released Thursday shows a gunfight between a 28-year-old Lagrange, Georgia, man and a Troup County deputy. Deputy Michael Hockett arrived at Matthew Edmondson's home on a wellness check at the request of his father, who was concerned about his well-being. When the deputy arrived, he scaled a fence to go around the house. Edmondson later opened the gate and pulled into the yard before getting out of the truck, and firing a large caliber handgun at the patrol car. Edmondson faces multiple charges, including attempted murder, aggravated assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon, and others. (Published Friday, Jan. 13, 2017)

    Inconsistent record keeping, including a recent switch to a new criminal offenses reporting system, makes it difficult to identify trends that apply uniformly across the major parks.

    But the records reviewed by the AP reveal the scope of visitor misbehavior is huge. In Yellowstone, administrators and outside observers including Clark say the park's problems have become more acute. That threatens its mission to manage its lands and wildlife "unimpaired" for future generations. 

    Beyond incidents that lead to citations are many more that result in warnings. More than 52,000 warnings were issued in 2015, up almost 20 percent from the year before. 

    Washington state resident Lisa Morrow's son was among the children Gleason led toward the elk. Despite safety advisories — and numerous examples of visitors getting gored by bison, mauled by bears and chased by elk — Morrow declared herself unafraid of the park's wildlife. She said she was eager to see a grizzly up close. 

    The Pros and Cons of Marijuana Use

    [NATL] The Pros and Cons of Marijuana Use
    Marijuana use may help with chronic pain and nausea, but a new study says there are also negative consequences for young children and those at risk for certain mental illnesses. Experts from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reviewed all research on marijuana published since 1999 to find who should smoke and who shouldn't. (Published Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017)

    "I want to see one right there," Morrow said, pointing to a spot just feet away. "I'd throw it a cookie." 

    The top 10 parks by visitation collectively hosted almost 44 million people last year, according to National Park Service figures. That's a 26 percent increase from a decade earlier, or more than 9.1 million new visitors combined at Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the other national parks on the list. 

    Yellowstone boasts the most large, dangerous carnivores among those parks, but each has its risks. In Rocky Mountain National Park, it's elk that become more aggressive during mating season. In Yosemite, it's towering waterfalls where visitors insist on swimming near the edge. In the Grand Canyon, it's squirrels habituated to humans and sometimes quick to bite an outstretched hand.

    Wenk said the rise in popularity of social media complicates keeping visitors safe. 

    "You take a picture of yourself standing 10 feet in front of a bison, and all of a sudden a few hundred people see it, and it's reposted — at the same time we're telling everybody wildlife is dangerous," Wenk said. "They get incongruous messages and then it happens. They get too close, and the bison charges."