Since 1980, 90 million people have visited the vast, beautiful wilderness of Yellowstone National Park - however, for a tiny minority, their visit can quickly turn into a nightmare. Although Yellowstone is now seen as a kind of wild-Disneyland full of tourists and amenities, for the animals that live there, it is still a wild place.
This fact was brought into stark realization recently with the news that a 16-year-old Taiwanese exchange student was gored by a Yellowstone bison last Friday. The girl, who visited the park with her host family, was walking near Yellowstone's famous Old Faithful geyser when they spotted the herd of bison. It seems the girl and her host family flouted Yellowstone's strict safety rules and approached the bison for a photo opportunity. Park rules state that bison should be given a wide berth, and that visitors should stay at least 25 yards away from them. According to park officials, the girl was as close as 3 to 6 feet to the 2,000 pound creature. A statement from the park officials said:
The girl turned her back to the bison to have her picture taken when the bison lifted its head, took a couple steps and gored her. Visitors are reminded that Yellowstone wildlife is wild. Wildlife should not be approached, no matter how tame or calm they appear. Bison can sprint three times faster than humans can run and are unpredictable and dangerous.
According to CNN, the girl sustained serious, but not life threatening, injuries. She was treated at a local park clinic before being airlifted to hospital.
"There are many ways to die in Yellowstone"
For the vast majority of visitors to Yellowstone, the park is a serene and unspoiled wilderness, complete with natural hot springs and over 61 types of mammals. Animal attacks in Yellowstone are incredibly rare, especially in terms of the amount of visitors it sees, however every year visitors are gored, and sometimes killed, by bison.
One woman, Cathy Hayes, experienced such an attack first hand after she followed a bison off the road and into a clearing. She jovially recorded the encounter, but things quickly turned for the worse when her friend wanted a closer look. You can see what happened in the video below:
In reality, attacks from other species of animals in Yellowstone are infrequent, and in the 32 years since 1980 and 2011 only 4 people were killed by bears. Two of these deaths occurred only months apart in 2011, and since then at least one of the responsible bears has been euthanized by park authorities.
The Deadliest Part of the Park Might Not Be What You'd Expect
But bison and bears are not responsible for all the injuries or deaths in Yellowstone National Park, instead the something much more benign has injured many more people.
Although famous for its wildlife, Yellowstone is also well-known for its various hot springs and geysers. According to park historian Lee Whittlesey, these pools of water can reach up to 250 degrees and there are around 10,000 of them dotted around the landscape. What's more, many of them are hidden from view and exist under brittle earth, meaning unsuspecting hikers can easily find themselves suddenly submerged in boiling water.
Whittlesey, who has written several books on deaths in Yellowstone, remembers two particularly harrowing accounts. One in 2000 saw three young seasonal employees walking back to their car in the dark. The three had joined hands and jumped over a stream of steam, however unbeknownst to the trio, they landed on the precipice of Cavern Spring. Their combined weight crumbled the earth beneath their feet and all three tumbled into the deepest part of the 179-degree pool. All three were initially rescued from the spring, but one later died in the hospital from her injuries.
Another incident involved a man named John Mark Williams. He was hiking in Yellowstone Park during a snowstorm and, with his visibility obscured, accidentally fell into a hot spring, burning himself all the way from his feet to his neck. Amazingly, he was able to haul himself back to the camp, by which point his skin was already beginning to shred from his body. On his arrival at the camp he was comforted by friends, but there was little they could do to save him. After several hours of severe pain, Williams died in the night.
There Are Plenty of Other Dangers to Watch Out For
Of course, this isn't the only way death can occur in Yellowstone. Whittlesey's book, Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, provides a long list of potential deaths including, "drowning, falls and avalanches, poisonous plants, hypothermia, falling trees, falling rocks, forest fires, bear attacks, lightning strikes, gas explosions and murder."
Whittlesey claims he does not want to dissuade people from visiting the park, instead he merely wants to remind them that Yellowstone is still a wild place where death is entirely possible. He explained:
"There’s many ways to die in Yellowstone. It’s not a sanitized city park. People think it’s like Disneyland and safe. But we have animals here that can eat you. People need to understand that."
Yellowstone authorities claim there is a very easy way to avoid death in the park: Simply follow the rules regarding interacting with animals and stick to signposts and marked walkways around the hot springs.