Close Call of the Week: Getting in a Bison’s Face to Take a Video

This article originally appeared on Backpacker

How many times does the National Park Service have to say "Don't pet the fluffy cows" before people actually listen? Because we haven't reached that point yet.

This video, posted by Tourons of Yellowstone last month and taken by Jackie Boesinger Meredyk, shows a middle-aged man approaching a bison jam from at least 20 cars back to take too-close-for-comfort videos of the wild animals with his iPad. He was within a car's length of some of the bison, holding up his iPad and stepping around to create the best angles for this video. At the time, park rangers were nudging the herd of bison across the street, and yelled at the man to back away. So, he stopped filming and returned to his car.

Aggressive interactions with bison are rare, and they mainly occur when humans get too close or provoke the animal. We've covered plenty of situations where people get close to wildlife for the sake of the video and end up getting gored, arrested, or worse. Social media cred or video virality isn't worth tempting wildlife. In this video's herd of bison, there were a couple calves, and you don't want to threaten territorial or protective mothers.

Before you step out of your car and try to score some Animal Planet-worthy footage to impress your coworkers or Facebook friends, think about this cool fact: Cameras have zoom. Just stay in your car (at least 25 yards from bison) and zoom in.

It's not a groundbreaking assessment to say the "do it for the Vine" trend back in the early 2010s still motivates notoriety-seeking people on every social media platform and in parks all across the country. There are hundreds of videos just on Tourons of Yellowstone alone of cluelessly brave tourists posing for a selfie just inches from wild animals, holding their babies next to wild bison for the picture, or stepping off-trail to film meandering wildlife. One thing they all have in common: A phone in their hand and an oblivious drive to break the park system’s safety guidelines. These are rules, not suggestions, to help us coexist with wildlife without ending up in the hospital, becoming the subject of public lambasting, or causing the animal's death.

Some organizations have argued that the American bison is"ecologically extinct" because they largely live in conservation zones in national parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Badlands, Wind Cave and Theodore Roosevelt. Yellowstone is the only place bison and their ancestors have lived continuously since prehistoric times. With just under 6,000 in the park, it's likely that you'll encounter many during your trip to Yellowstone.

Next time you find yourself tempted by the siren song of the "fluffy cow," do this instead:

Step back, and create space.

Yellowstone mandates staying at least 100 yards (91 meters) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 meters) away from all other animals, including bison and elk. Bison might appear to move slowly, but they can actually run up to 35 miles per hour, which is 8 miles per hour faster than Usain Bolt's top speed. You won't be able to outrun them, so keep your distance. Weighing about a ton, they're also the largest land-dwelling mammals in North America, so by sheer size alone, don't tempt them.

Understand what agitated body language looks like.

Bison regularly approach cars in the park, getting 5 to 10 feet away, but that doesn't mean they're being aggressive. There are two clear signs they're getting annoyed: Eye contact and tail movement. Usually, bison don't make eye contact with humans. When they turn their body toward you and make eye contact, they're telling you that they're annoyed with you. Also, when a bison lifts its tail, it's bad news. In a conflict, don't raise your arms and yell like you would with a bear: A bison actually interprets that as a challenge.

Summertime is mating season for bison, so males will likely be more aggressive from July through September due to their elevated testosterone levels.

Support their conservation.

Bison have dodged extinction a couple times in the past, particularly in the 19th century, so population conservation efforts are a priority in the 21st century. The Yellowstone Bison Coexistence Program is a partnership among the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Sierra Club in collaboration with Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks with the goal of helping landowners coexist, conflict-free, with wild bison outside Yellowstone.

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