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Baby bison euthanized after being handled by a Yellowstone guest, rejected by herd

A photo shared by the National Park Service shows a park visitor attempting to help a stranded bison calf reunite with its herd. The plan ultimately ended the animal's chance of survival.
Hellen Jack
National Park Service
A photo shared by the National Park Service shows a park visitor attempting to help a stranded bison calf reunite with its herd. The plan ultimately ended the animal's chance of survival.

Updated May 24, 2023 at 12:59 PM ET

UPDATE: A Hawaii man has pleaded guilty to disturbing wildlife in connection with this incident. For the latest on this story, head here.

Yellowstone National Park rangers euthanized a newborn bison calf after a visitor touched the animal, trying to help it catch up with its herd, the National Park Service said on Tuesday.

The herd had been crossing the Lamar River on Saturday evening when the calf got separated from its mother on the river bank, according to a press release from the agency. A man observing the scene approached the animal with apparent rescue intentions.

"As the calf struggled, the man pushed the calf up from the river and onto the roadway," NPS said. "Visitors later observed the calf walk up to and follow cars and people."

Park rangers repeatedly tried to reunite the calf with the herd, but the herd resisted.

The rangers later euthanized the calf, saying its persistence in approaching cars posed a hazard to guests, according to NPS.

NPS is investigating the incident and asking the public to share any relevant information to a tip line. The agency has yet to identify the man behind the incident, describing him as a "white male in his 40-50's, wearing a blue shirt and black pants."

Pending the outcome of the investigation, he could be charged with Class B misdemeanors, including disturbing wildlife, disorderly conduct (creating a hazardous condition) and approaching wildlife, according to Morgan Warthin, a spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park.

If found guilty of those charges, the man could face up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine, Warthin told NPR.

Yellowstone requires that visitors stay at least 25 yards away from its two breeding bison herds, which collectively contained5,900 animals at the last count in 2022. The park is the only place in the contiguous U.S. to have maintained a continuously free-ranging bison population since prehistoric times.

By the late 1880s, Yellowstone's herds were nearly extinct, due to a mix of poaching and hunting by the U.S. Army, part of an federal campaign to eradicate Native American tribes in the area by diminishing their main source of food.

Today, park guests can spot the animals nearly year-round and from the roadway in places like Wyoming's Lamar Valley, a confluence of rivers in the park's northeast corner.

NPS has frequently defended its policy of not interfering in the natural death of animals on public lands, including orphaned offspring.

"Our focus is on sustaining viable populations of native wildlife species, rather than protecting individual animals," reads an NPS webpage on the policy. "An animal's survival depends on its own daily decisions and natural selection."

Another Yellowstone bison calf was euthanized following human interference in 2016. Edward O'Brien of Montana Public Radio reported that two tourists placed the calf in their car and drove it to a nearby park facility because they "thought the animal looked cold and uncomfortable."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 29, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story said that Yellowstone's bison herds nearly went extinct due to poaching. In fact, illegal hunting was only one factor that contributed to the herd's decline and the story has been updated to reference another key driver: a campaign, led by the U.S. Army, to drive out Native American tribes in the region.
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.