A new safety campaign from Colorado State University’s communications and natural resources departments is teaching national park visitors about safe selfies.
The Safe Wildlife Distance program includes educational materials for park staff, as well as ads and social media campaigns explaining how to get a good photo of wild animals without putting yourself -- or the animal -- at risk.
“Potentially people didn’t know what a safe distance was,” said Katie Abrams, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Journalism and Media Communication. “So, they would look to try to read the cues of the wildlife and see if they could make a determination or they would approach the wildlife to a distance that felt safe to them.”
To help, the campaign -- created by Abrams and Tara Teel, professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources -- introduced taglines like “Don’t make it awkward, we bearly know each other,” and “Whoa, hold your horses.”
It also offered up tips like the ‘bus rule.’ When taking photos of wildlife such as deer and elk, a safe distance is 75 feet -- or about the length of two buses. If your photo subject is something more dangerous, like bears, make it 150 feet or four buses.
The pilot program was introduced at four national parks: Assateague Island National Seashore, Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park. According to observational data gathered between June to October 2017, the number of people keeping a safe distance from wildlife increased by at least 16 percent in three of the four parks where the campaign was introduced.
“It actually wasn’t very successful at Grand Canyon National Park,” Abrams said.
The problem was largely due to the park’s water filling stations, she said. They’re a big attraction for visitors -- and elk, which would saunter down the paved pathways right into crowds of hundreds of tourists.
“And as soon as the animal does that -- comes into the space where the people are -- the wildness of the animal no longer seems relevant,” said Abrams, noting that often people would think the park rangers had actually brought the elk into the area on purpose as part of a “show.”
The elk would actually put on a performance, she said. They couldn’t turn on the water themselves, so they needed people to do it for them.
“They would pretty much beg like a dog would,” Abrams said.
People think that they’re helping the elk because it’s “just water,” but in reality, they are making the animals more dependent on people while also putting lots of people at risk, she said. Breaking that cycle won’t be easy, but they did find success -- as well as setbacks.
While gathering data at Assateague Island, Abrams had come to know two horses that frequently approached people. She often looked for them when out on observations.
“I knew if I could find these two horses, I was going to find trouble,” Abrams said.
Sure enough, one day there the mare was: right where the trailhead met the parking lot. And there they were: a family of five getting out of a minivan.
“They were so excited to see wild horses,” Abrams said. “And then one of the women in the group did that ‘mother hen’ thing where she stood in front of the children and put her arms out and said, ‘Remember everyone, stay back one bus length.’ And in my head, I’m screaming, ‘Yes! They got it.’”
But then the horse saw an opportunity: the minivan’s door was open.
“She went right for it -- rummaging through their van,” Abrams said. “And the family immediately melted, and the parents started petting the mare. So, they knew the right thing to do, but in that instant … it became very difficult for them to back away. The animal no longer seemed wild; it’s like the animal made a choice to approach them.”
Abrams said next steps are to look at a campaign that ties safe distances with safe food and water storage practices, as well as lessons on not feeding the animals.
“Because all of those behaviors are interrelated and problematic for people and wildlife,” she said.