Tragedy in Yellowstone: A Response

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone

Last week’s post about the death of Yellowstone hiker Lance Crosby and the subsequent death of the grizzly bear responsible sparked a lot of commentary here on this page and elsewhere on social media sites. Some comments were supportive, some highly critical.

The majority wrote that last week’s story helped them understand the complexities of the issues surrounding the incident. Since that was my intent, I was pleased to get the support.

Personally speaking, the most rewarding comments came from Mr. Crosby’s friends and co-workers.

I didn’t know Lance Crosby, but I now have a much greater understanding of the man through his colleagues. I will share one private email, with permission, because it reminds all of us that we are dealing with real people here as well as bears:

I wanted to thank you for your exceptional article. Lance was a good friend of mine having worked at Lake Clinic with him for two seasons. The social media comments on his death have both angered and disgusted me. I too knew Blaze having passed her and her cubs many mornings when out for a run. (usually in the horse pasture just below the government housing) I also have hiked much of the back country alone and even now can close my eyes and follow the Elephant Back trail up to the lookout point. What I wanted you to know that I have struggled this past week to make any sense of Lance’s death. I am surrounded by suicide bombings almost daily here in Afghanistan and the thought of losing Lance in such a peaceful and beautiful setting was hard to wrap my head around. Your article has helped me come to terms with his death.. Thank you Tim Langley Kabul, Afghanistan.

That message, and many others like it, made the initial post worthwhile.

But there were sincere objections too, and they deserve a response.

The most common criticism referenced my statement that Yellowstone was created “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” I obviously didn’t explain what that means to me very well.

While I didn’t invent that line, (the 42nd U.S. Congress did,) I think it’s a damn good thing they wrote it.

I’m very certain that without those words the Yellowstone landscape would currently be covered in condos, ski resorts, fast-food joints, and ATV trails. And there wouldn’t be grizzly bears there at all. That measured and thoughtful congressional language withstood many assaults from profiteers and developers in the park’s early days.

We can revise our opinions and beliefs, and we can amend laws, but we cannot edit historical documents because we don’t like the words in them. The act creating Yellowstone National Park indisputably says what it says.*

On a similar note, some critiques revolved around my statement that humans created Yellowstone. They said adamantly that humanity had nothing to do with creating Yellowstone, nature did.  They are both right and wrong.

Obviously, we had nothing to do with creating the Yellowstone landscape. But the definition of the park is all our doing. As stated above, without that legal description, you don’t have anything to visit, to marvel at, to fight for, and to cherish.

Yellowstone “The National Park” is 100% man-made. And I, for one, am very thankful for the foresight of the people who created Yellowstone and for the language they used in setting it aside.

The one thing that protects Yellowstone is that it’s a public place. If you prefer, the inscription could just as well read “For the benefit and enjoyment of the public.

To the many commentators here who suggested, or even insisted, that we “stay the hell out” of Yellowstone because it belongs to the animals, not the public, you are insisting on something very dangerous; much more dangerous than traveling alone in the wilderness.

Some even said “tear down the damn sign.”

To those people I say: Are you really asking for people to stay out of our National Parks? Stay out of those places some have called “Americas best idea” – that’s truly what you want?

Imagine being prohibited from visiting the Grand Canyon because condors live there; or Brooks Falls because of the bears there. . . the Everglades, Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, Yosemite Valley, the Cascades, Crater Lake, the Badlands, the Tetons, Glacier Bay, – the list is 59 parks and hundreds of rare species long.

That’s what you “stay the hell out” and “tear down the signs” folks are advocating, whether you admit it or not.

In each of those parks, wild animals thrive specifically because the parks are wild places. But they are wild public places.

If we exclude humanity to preserve the animals, if we turn all those national parks into more national wildlife refuges(which we are fortunate to already have hundreds of), where human activity is strictly controlled and in many cases even prohibited, then those places will become the domain of animals and researchers alone. “Good!” you might say. But be careful what you wish for.

Excluding people to protect the animals from human contact means you won’t ever have the chance to see a wild grizzly bear. You won’t even get to see pretty pictures of them on Facebook and Instagram because my colleagues and I won’t be allowed in either. In fact, you won’t know if the animals still exist there at all unless you read about it in a government report or see them on television.

I know there are people who really do want this total public exclusion, but happily the vast majority still want to see these things for themselves. They want to experience first hand the perpetual sense of awe that those parks promise. I’m one of those people.

As soon as the public cannot visit the parks, those places and the creatures there will cease to have significance to the masses. And it will become much more difficult to advocate for any of them.

The National Parks are the greatest public relations device ever created for Mother Nature.

Related to the “stay out” proponents are the many comments stating that Lance Crosby shouldn’t have been where he was at all because the animals were there first. The kinder versions of those comments usually went something like “We’re in their home. If we get killed it’s our own fault.”

While I agree completely that we take our chances when we enter the bear’s realm, I couldn’t disagree more that we don’t belong there in the first place.

I addressed the mistakes I personally believe Mr. Crosby made in the original post.** But I disagree wholeheartedly with those commentators who suggest that people should not be allowed to experience the parks alone and away from the crowds.

Despite what some of the modern pundits are writing about this particular situation, I believe that early naturalists like Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, and Sigurd Olson, understood things that the “stay out” crowd are ignoring now. Those philosophers each spent large chunks of their lives alone in nature, and we have all profited spiritually and tangibly because of it.

Permanently separating humans from nature doesn’t work, especially if you want to inspire people to care. Wilderness can’t be an abstract idea, it needs to be experienced.

Grizzly bears feed on a bison carcass in the Yellowstone River – Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming, U.S.

A huge part of the problem right now in all our national parks is balancing public access with resource protection. Logistics and infrastructure management are not my areas of experience – I’m just a dopey wildlife photographer who spends a lot of time in Yellowstone – but from where I stand it looks like a holy nightmare.

What I do know is that the solution is not to “tear down the signs” and “stay the hell out.”

I suspect that the best course now is to focus on education of park visitors and employees to the point that they can prove they understand where they are, what the benefits of wilderness are, what they’re likely to see, and what things might hurt them.

Anyone who doesn’t demonstrably understand that bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bison, elk, moose, sheep, even pikas, can hurt you, cannot be allowed into the park.

A signed waiver stating they understand those potential dangers and the many other things besides animals that can kill you, would also help prevent the unnecessary lawsuits the Park Service regularly faces in these kind of situations.

Arming everyone who enters Yellowstone with bear spray, but without instruction about where, when, and how to use it is a recipe for disaster. Arming them with the knowledge to prevent situations where they need that spray at all is a much better alternative.

You can make bear spray mandatory for travel away from the roads, on and off established trails, but we have to ensure people will use it responsibly and not start spraying critters they come across just because they feel uncomfortable. That does also happen in Yellowstone.

As some of you know, Yellowstone has different types of Park Rangers: Law enforcement, back country, interpretive, there are probably others…

The addition of many more rangers, especially interpretive (educational) rangers, would help. If those rangers were heavily concentrated into areas with known hazards, some potential tragedies would certainly be avoided.

Again, I realize that will be a logistical and financial nightmare for the National Park Service, but something must been done – something short of further limiting visitor access to the parks.  There are already massive areas of Yellowstone which have seasonal and long-term closures for resource management.

I would prefer to see the park flooded with additional rangers rather than covered in new “Danger: Keep Out” signs.

And you should know, the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone region is increasing. Since human visitation isn’t likely to decline, the potential for another bear attack like the one that killed Lance Crosby is there, and always will be.

More 1/4 billion people visited America’s national parks last year; 3.5 million in Yellowstone alone.

If they stop coming because they can’t go anywhere alone when they get there; if they have stay on air-conditioned tour buses; if they can only see the parks from paved roads and in the pages of magazines; the inspiration, the solitude, the solace, and the healing the parks provide to regular people on a daily basis will be gone forever.

Actually, I think those days are coming, and I don’t want to hurry them along.

I could write, much, much more on this, but I’m tired of my own words, and I know many of you are too.

I’ll end by saying that the comments I received here about grizzlies, and people, and national parks were very enlightening to me. The vast majority were obviously heartfelt, and I thank everyone who commented respectfully and thoughtfully – even those who were critical of my positions. Civility is becoming a lost art.

Feel free to contact me through my web site:


*  Someone took me to task that I didn’t publish the whole 1872 act. It’s all there at the link for you to interpret as you will. You just have to click “next image” when you’re finished with the first page.

** The primary mistake being that he doesn’t appear to have been carrying bear spray. But frankly, we don’t know that. He could have had spray that he subsequently lost in the struggle for his life. Several of his friends and colleagues wrote to say the he was very bear-aware and always had the spray with him on his hikes.

Keith R. Crowley is a writer and photographer who spends much of his time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

©2015 Keith R. Crowley – All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Tragedy in Yellowstone: A Response

  1. Keith, thanks for the great writing and spilling your heart. I think some folks think life should be a danger free zone, I bet Lance Crosby knew the risks better than most and went anyway. This group that wants to wall off the parks to Humans….I hope they’re small in number. My view is these wild places are there for humans, they are places of great learning and incredible spiritual richness.
    Glad you are there and Thanks so much.

  2. You are not only a “dopey wildlife photographer”, you are an excellent advocate for the national park system. Great overview of the system’s problems and I can’t agree more that what’s required is educating the public and employing the people to provide that education.
    I’m pessimistic about that happening, but continue to hope and advocate.
    Terrific two posts!

  3. I did not know your friend we owe him ,and family respect. I live about an hour away we’re very luck to enjoy this park but we are in these wild animals word. This is not a central park or a zoo it is the wild. Wake up people.wth.

  4. Loved the last two posts. Great information and insight. I whole heartedly believe in the education of people. I feel that as time has gone on we may believe we are educated and know what to do until the time comes.

  5. Yellowstone is “the first” national park in the world. It inspired the creation of dozens more across the United States and hundreds across the world. This has been a good thing for both people and animals the world over. “The more civilized man becomes, the more he needs, and craves a great background of forest wildness, to which he may return like a contrite prodigal from the husks of an artificial life.” – Ellen Burns Sherman

    Most of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres are seen by no one except for the hardiest of hikers and backpackers. The bears that don’t want to see people rarely do. As you said Keith, too much of Yellowstone is already being put “off limits”, much to the chagrin of the long time visitor who can no longer go where they once did. Outside Yellowstone there is 3.3 million acres of designated wilderness areas where critters remain unseen by the drive by tourist. Most of the high country of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s 19 million acres remains sparsely visited because the magnet of Yellowstone draws all the visitors. There are plenty of places for the critters who wish to avoid the circus of Yellowstone’s figure 8 access system that winds through a fraction of the park. “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes, and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”
    -Sir John Lubbock

    I was appalled by the commenter who suggested all visitors be guided, good grief! That would mean Joe six-pack could no longer afford to bring his family to Yellowstone. “Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths— animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies— or it will dwindle and pale.” – Walt Whitman

    The creation of Yellowstone in 1872 was genius, a short time later and there would have been settlers there selling mineral water and hot baths. It was only the miserable winters that had prevented that from happening sooner. There would have been little Chico and Thermopolis hot spring resorts scattered across the Yellowstone Plateau, for the enjoyment of all for a price. The price of no Yellowstone wilderness. As John Muir once said: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul “

  6. Thank you for putting everything in perspective. We will never know for sure exactly what happened to Lance. He probably would not have wanted all this publicity. But, I hope we can bring some goos education out of all this…….You said it well…….

  7. Great post. I agree that more education is needed. The newspaper handed to visitors as they enter the park is likely to be thrown into the backseat while they anxiously look for “wolf, moose & bear”. The National Parks are probably close to the bottom of the ladder when the Feds start handing out money. I believe that issuing a hefty fine could help, albeit in a small way, but word would definitely get around! The several bison incidents alone (just saw post of a guy about to pet a bison’s nose), could bring in millions in fines! Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration. I think reading “Death in Yellowstone” & showing videos like the ones on the park’s website, should be mandatory before entrance to the park.

  8. Man; the slowest, least capable of self defense, platter of meat to tread the wilderness. What part of carnivore does a tourist misunderstand? Yet; “3.5 million in Yellowstone alone” invaded this natural wonder and few were injured or killed. It would appear the animals have shown great restraint. May I suggest that exaggerated regulation and enforcement is not responsible.

    All people should be welcome to all areas via foot trails, at their own risk. Vehicular access should be limited with adequate parking. Our wild lands are not zoos. They should not be a meal ticket for the legal profession or tourist trade. The housing and food service should be outside the park boundaries. : Unfortunately this act has been amended and revised to accommodate the profiteers. The wilderness should be accessible, not paved.

  9. A note about National Wildlife Refuges… Managers of refuges actually don’t exclude humans but rather control our use of and access to them. Most encourage visitation and over 300 of them have hunting, often for big game, even grizzly bear. A major difference from Parks is that Wildlife Management, is the goal, not just one more diversion for visitors. As you say National Parks are for people, and Yellowstone National Park does an outstanding job at providing an enjoyable experience for us. I love the place.

    Wildlife has become one of Yellowstone’s most attractive entertainments and maybe this isn’t such a good thing. The Park does a much poorer job with wildlife because the Park is a human centric institution. The general feeling I get from people who make the wildlife of Yellowstone the focus of their visitation, is that the Park is almost akin to a petting zoo. Habituated grizzly sows with cubs as a common sight in areas of high human density is a recipe for a mauling. Expect it with regularity.

    Notice I don’t use cute pet names with wildlife?

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