Respecting Wildlife with Wilderness Ethics

Trash. Trampled flowers. Eroded trails. Polluted lakes. Such images certainly stir up negative feelings, and few would appreciate finding such conditions amid Yellowstone’s abundant wonders. However, the acts of just a few careless individuals could create these and worse conditions for the nation’s first national park. In an effort to keep wildlife safe and preserve the park for the enjoyment of future generations, Yellowstone visitors are urged to follow wilderness ethics at all times.

What are wilderness ethics? Very simply, they are a set of guidelines designed to instill appreciation of America’s wildest and most pristine places. Do your part to respect Yellowstone, and keep in mind the following principles on your next park visit.

The Rule of Positive Impact
When the concept of “Positive Impact” was first introduced, it simply asked visitors to leave only footprints during their travels and take nothing away from the site but pictures. Today, the “Leave No Trace” concept takes into account a growing number of wilderness and national park users, asking visitors to actually leave their destination in better condition than they found it. If you find litter in Yellowstone, pick it up to enhance the area’s beauty for the next visitor. You’ll feel good that you did, and those following in your footsteps will appreciate your effort.

Avoid Feeding Wildlife
No matter how you look at it, feeding Yellowstone’s wildlife is hazardous to both humans and wildlife. While some of Yellowstone’s mammals and birds have been habituated to beg for food, feeding the animals only perpetuates the harmful situation. Human food does not possess the nutrients upon which wild animals are dependent, and the animals then become subject to malnourishment, disease, and eventually death. Animals who become dependent upon human food also lose their innate hunting abilities, making winter survival nearly impossible.

Animals, however, are not the only ones adversely affected by feeding the wildlife. Humans that do feed Yellowstone’s mammals and small rodents are more susceptible to animal bites and disease. Rabies can be potentially lethal if not treated, and rodents (such as squirrels and chipmunks) have been found with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. Although instances of humans contracting the plague are rare, they have occurred. Think twice about wildlife feedings!

Respect Yellowstone’s Bears with Proper Food Storage
Although most people maintain a healthy respect for bears, this wilderness ethic goes far beyond fearing bears and their powerful abilities. To truly respect Yellowstone’s bears, visitors must think about the bear’s protection. A bear that successfully raids a campsite and enjoys a feast of human food sets off a negative chain of events. Bears are smart, and they will quickly link food with humans and campgrounds. Bears will then frequent campsites, creating unfortunate encounters with humans. If the behavior persists, rangers have no choice but to move the bear to a new habitat. In the event that a food-conditioned bear injures a visitor, rangers must then destroy the animal.

Respect the natural cycle of life, and avoid bear encounters with proper food storage etiquette. In maintained campsites, place food, toiletries, and garbage in your car trunk. In the backcountry, utilize backcountry storage boxes, or hang your food and garbage at least ten feet off the ground. Respect bears’ amazing sense of smell, and never store food or toiletries in or near your tent.

Follow the Trail
As tempting as it may be to veer off the trail into the wilds of Yellowstone with nothing but a compass, this situation wreaks havoc on the landscape and is dangerous to your health. The park maintains established trails for a reason, and those who refuse to follow the trail compromise other area users’ enjoyment. Protect Yellowstone’s beauty, and stay on the trail at all times. Never shortcut a trail, especially on switchbacks. Shortcutting switchbacks disturbs area vegetation and eventually leads to erosion and hillside scarring. Those who abandon the trail are also more likely to suffer injury or get lost in the backcountry. Follow the trail!

Avoid Picking Wildflowers
A rug of wildflowers carpets Yellowstone’s landscape with color and beauty every May through September. This mosaic of natural jewels often tempts visitors to pick a few blossoms, even though the flowers quickly whither when removed from their natural environment. What few people realize, however, is that these wildflowers play an integral role in sustaining a fragile ecosystem. At Yellowstone’s high elevations, wildflowers possess just a brief moment in time to set their seeds. If the plants are removed prior to scattering their seeds, the natural process is disturbed. Annuals may not reproduce, and this in turn limits animals’ food supply. Refrain from disrupting nature’s cycle, and allow others to experience the beauty of Yellowstone’s wildflowers.

Don’t Pick or Eat the Vegetation
As with park wildflowers, refrain from picking other plant species in the park and surrounding region. Numerous varieties of poisonous plants and berries grow in Yellowstone, so it is unwise to eat any of the park’s vegetation. In an emergency scenario, pick and eat only plants and berries you can positively identify with no hesitation.

Protect Yellowstone’s Water
Water is one of the earth’s most precious resources, and Yellowstone’s lakes, rivers, and streams deserve the utmost care from their users. Whether you are in the backcountry or at a heavily visited site, protect Yellowstone’s water by camping, disposing of waste, and washing dishes a minimum of 100 feet away from the shoreline. Never use soap (even those labeled biodegradable) in or near Yellowstone’s water. Picnickers are urged to limit the spread of resource damage around lakeshores and rivers; picnic at previously used sites instead of opting for pristine sites. If possible, picnic on a boulder rather than on vegetated land.

Observe Park Rules
Park rules in Yellowstone are inherently designed to correspond with wilderness ethics. Refrain from violating park law, (such as removing rocks or breaking off tree limbs), and as a result, you will be following the basic tenets of wilderness ethics. 

Refrain From Building
For those disposed to building with Mother Nature’s materials, refrain from constructing creations in Yellowstone. Do not build rock cairns, assemble fire rings, or pile brush for a softer sleeping area. Although your intentions may be innocent, these structures grace the landscape long after your departure and affect how future visitors view the site. As always, leave no trace of your visit.

·       Maintain a Lead Free Environment
For over a decade, Yellowstone has followed a lead-free fishing policy. As of 1994, anglers are no longer allowed to use lead-weighted ribbon, leaded split-shot sinkers, or any other tackle equipment containing lead. Yellowstone’s wildlife, particularly swans, loons, and shorebirds, are susceptible to lead poisoning. Protect Yellowstone’s creatures with a lead-free fishing experience.

Refrain from Backcountry Bicycling
As in other wilderness areas across the country, bicycles are viewed as non-primitive modes of transportation. Refrain from impacting the fragile backcountry with your bike, and remain on designated routes and public roads where biking is permitted.

Cooking Stoves Versus Fires
Although small campfires are occasionally permitted in Yellowstone’s backcountry in pre-established fire rings, park rangers wholeheartedly endorse the wilderness principle of lighting cook stoves, not fires. Unlike clean-burning cook stoves, fires scar the land, present a hazard during drought conditions, tarnish the sky with smoke, and pollute rivers, streams, and lakes. Maintain Yellowstone’s health and vibrant ecosystem, and refrain from lighting campfires. 

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