Eye to Eye With the Elk In Yellowstone Park

When the world's oldest park becomes a petting zoo, watch out!

ON a road outside Mammoth Hot Springs, beneath a moonscape of terraced limestone, a man pulled over to shoot a picture of a mule deer. I did, too.

I clicked merrily away from the roadside but soon started getting the back of the man's head as he edged closer to the tweed-tan animal. He ended up about five feet away, which didn't make any sense to me because he was using a telephoto lens. He must have thought he was Marlin Perkins. The deer eventually lunged toward the man, sending him scurrying to his car.

A few miles down the road the scene was similar. The object of fascination this time was a bull elk with a rack of antlers big enough to hang a tub of clothes on. Everyone dutifully snapped pictures from a safe distance, with the exception of a small boy. He crawled Daniel Boone-like to within a few feet of the imposing creature, apparently thinking he would go undetected in his lime pants.

With its prodigious animal population and 3.2 million human visitors a year, Yellowstone harbors the potential for more man-animal contact than perhaps any other national park.

Roaming amid the geysers and lodgepole pine in this 2.2 million acres of northwest Wyoming are more than 2,000 mule deer, 30,000 elk, 500 pronghorn antelope, 200 bighorn sheep, and 450 moose. There are coyotes, bears, marmots, mountain lions, and enough buffalo to please the Plains Indians.

The problem is people that think this is the world's largest outdoor petting zoo. Despite the National Park Service's best efforts to keep man and animal apart - warning signs and leaflets are ubiquitous - people continually sidle up to animals. Their courage seems to be in proportion to the number of lenses draped around their necks.

The week before we were there a man approached a bison. He didn't want to take its picture but wanted to be captured in a Kodak moment next to it. He walked up to the one-ton animal, apparently turned around with a say-cheese smile, and ended up being gored in the back side.

Actually, the number of animal-related injuries in the world's oldest national park is relatively small given the amount of human-wildlife contact. Only a few such incidents occur each year, with bison being one of the chief participants.

This is easy to understand. The beard-wagging animals are all over - along (and on) the roads, in Dances-with-Wolves-size herds in the meadows, grazing in front of park lodges. With their lumbering gait and diffident demeanor, they seem easy to approach. But bison are dangerous and unpredictable and, despite a box-car build, can sprint 30 miles per hour.

Other animals, too, because of their seeming nonchalance around people, make it easy to mistake this park for the Bronx Zoo instead of the Wyoming wilds. I woke up one morning to find a moose in the conifer behind my cabin. I moved to within what I thought was a courageous distance and shot a few pictures. A woman breezed past me, a few antler lengths away from the animal. I mentioned to her that moose don't see very well and thus are easily spooked. Their hooves, I pressed on, are potent weapons, which they can flick with Zorro-like dexterity.

She looked at me as if I had seen too many Oliver Stone conspiracy movies and closed in with her video camera, narrating as she went: "This moose was right behind our cabin...!"

EVERYBODY who visits the park wants to see a bear or at least be able to tell a bear story, while everybody who works in the park usually has a bear story to tell and doesn't want to see another.

One man in a photo shop told of a colleague's encounter with a grizzly the week before. He was fishing near Swan Lake when a mother and her cub wandered by. The grizzly made a charge, just to remind everyone whose territory it was, and the man quickly retreated. He hasn't been seen fishing since.

At Roosevelt Lodge, where tourists can travel by horseback or covered wagon to an Old West cookout, cowboys tell of the night a grizzly came into camp. As befits Yellowstone, half the people charged the bear with their Canons while the other half ran for cover. The animal ended up going from plate to plate, finishing the apple crisp and baked beans.

Maulings do occasionally occur, though more fatalities have resulted from people falling into geysers than from bear attacks.

To limit such encounters, the Park Service urges people to make noise when hiking so they don't surprise a bear. Stores sell walking sticks with bells, but this can sound like you are strolling through the woods with the Boston Pops.

If charged, the Park Service suggests going into a fetal position and playing dead. This may make carnivorous sense, but I still want to meet the person who can curl up and be quiet while being swatted around like a soccer ball by a grizzly.

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